Photos by Kimberly Coleman
Post Soundtrack: Grandma’s Hands
The Lakefront: When I was asked to shoot for the blog, I knew I wanted to do something outside a traditional urban environment. I decided that the lake was a must. Photography is all about capturing and cementing memory, and the first time we were introduced to Noirlinians back in 2015, the lake served as a backdrop. I wanted to give a call back to that post and acknowledge that feeling of newness and anxiety when you do something for the first time.
Mwende: My original post was one of the most difficult and exhilarating post to write. This past December I had the opportunity to visit with and interview my cucu, though I have decided not to publish my reflection on that just yet on a public platform.
Instead, I chose to write about and honor both of my grandmothers, or as I know them, Cucu & Mwaitu, in this ‘glamma’ post.
While both women are glamorous in their own village way, they also share a number of similarities. Both women are matriarchs of the family, the backbones of sometimes skeletal connections between kin, especially after the passing of my grandfathers. Both were shop women who made kiondos and raised their large families with their shop and farm earnings during colonialism and then through the formation of what we know today as ‘Kenya’.
Both women, because they spend most if not all of their time in their respective village lands, remain distant to me in a way I can never topple until I learn my indigenous languages of Kikuyu and Kikamba. Learning & keeping up with Kikuyu and Kikamba is much harder than doing so with Swahili which is recognized and spoken by many people. I know I won’t be able to truly learn either without a full immersion, and I can feel a year in Kenya on my horizon where I spend 6 months in my respective groups just absorbing language and lineage. There is a growing urgency for me to learn, listen to and honor their stories as they age, an experience I did not really have with either grandfather before their transitions.
When I was in high school, I was part of a program called The Minority Students Achievement Network (MSAN). During one MSAN gathering, we circled up and were asked to share a truth we’d never shared before.
At the time, I was going by K.K. K.K. was a family nickname given to me by my brother (that stood for my initials Kalondu Katwiwa) that Americans quickly latched onto in efforts not to bother their tongues with the pronunciation of a “foreign” name (although lets be honest, as far as non-American names, mine is fairly simple…). I remembering being in school and being anxiously aware of when teachers would get to my name during attendance due to the pregnant pause they took before butchering my name. Other teachers would simply look at the name, look for the most African looking kid in the room, then just ask me if I had a nickname. Within time, K.K. became who I was, whether I wanted it or not.
When it got to my turn in the MSAN circle, I blurted out that I hated when people called me KK, that my given names were special to me and intentional for me, and that I did not want to be reduced to two letters anymore. When they asked me what I wanted to be called, I told them the name that always felt like home for me – Kalondu.
Kalondu is the family name I inherited from my susu Mwaitu. There are about 8 Kalondus on my dad’s side as naming customs dictate the first daughter to be named after the susu. I’ve come to be known as Mwende over the years, but it indicates a certain level of intimacy and familiarity of all my selves if you know me as and can properly evoke the name Kalondu.
According to my dad, I inherited much more from my susu than just her name. I am her stubbornness, her sunrise laugh and midnight moods, her quick wit and slow forgiveness. I wish I knew more about my susu, but I do not speak Kikamba and she refuses to speak to me in Kiswahili (which is the indigenous language of the Swahili people though it is also one of the official language of Kenya).
There was a time she would entertain my foreign tongue, but now she insists if I go to Kambaland to see her, that I speak to her in her language, an important but difficult demand. When I speak to her in Swahili, she stares me dead in the face, usually scoffs or sighs sadly, then looks away as she pretends not to understand what I’m saying. She usually keeps this up for a bit, but I know she has a deep affection for me because she eventually finds her way back over to speak to me or to have someone translate what shes saying to me.
The more time I spend with Mwaitu, the more I see of myself in her, words be damned. I remember a day when I realized I got her humorous shade. We were taking photos and she gave me a mango and insisted on holding up an ear of corn like this:
I couldn’t exactly figure out why she was so insistent until it was revealed that she’d seen Noirlinians and was attempting to “take a blog photo”. I burst out into laughter and told her she’d make it onto there some day. She laughed and gave me this old school kitenge dress of hers that I wear when I need to feel closer to parts of myself. Every time I visit her in fact, she tries to give me clothes, mainly I think in an effort to feminize me. I chuckle everytime I think of a day I spent at her shamba about two years ago when she both was frustrated and accepting of my gender presentation and essence. I was sitting in her living room with my cousin Sue when she looked at me with her small black eyes and said something that made cuzzo burst out into laughter. Between giggles, Sue tells me that Mwaitu has said something along the lines of “God doesn’t make mistakes, but you should have been born a boy”.
Mwaitu turned 100 years old last year and I think she may have truly run out of fucks to give. She suffers no fools and is unapologetic about her impatience, even in her own family. This last December, my other cucu was patiently teaching me to weave kiondos. The first time I brought my lumpy, misshapen half made basket by Mwaitu, I had a small spark of pride inside of me for my small efforts so far. Mwaitu snatched that basket from my hands as if I had tarnished the art of basket weaving and began furiously attempting to ‘correct’ it while shaking her head at my lack of skills and self. I laughed knowing that this was her way of showing interest and connection, and we spent a few afternoons in Karen passing the kiondo back and forth as we sat in the sun in silence.
I wish I’d retained more Kikamba from my childhood. I was raised in Tala, close to Mwala where Mwaitu lives. When we moved to the US, my parents spoke a mix of Kiswahili, Kikuyu and Kikamba to us. My father was/is a Swahili teacher and gave us lessons growing up, slowly but gradually our indigenous language evaporated. Without people to speak them with and with waning interest as we assimilated more and more into 1990s America (which to be clear was NOT praising and celebrating indigenousness / Africanness, and not just white folks…), they became part of our past. This was also in the era of calling cards and no cell phones so we generally had brief and limited contact with people back home.
It wasn’t until my Kamba grandparents came to the US to visit when I was in high school (around 2007/2008) and were forced to stay for nearly a year because of the post election violence in Kenya at the time, that I spent any significant amount of time with them since emigrating in the 1990s.
My cucu on the Kikuyu side just turned 88 this past July. I had the honor of interviewing her this past January about her life during “The Emergency” and under colonial rule, though I had to enlist my mom for help. As with Kikamba, I barely speak Kikuyu (I tried to have my cousins teach me, but its clear with both languages it needs to be an immersive experience), but this cucu does not mind speaking to me in Swahili, though it strains her to do so. She has been in the village most of her life so she had very little need to maintain her Swahili after she left the was forced to and then fled the city during colonization. Everytime I see cucu, she is actively working on her shamba, cutting firewood or sitting contently/peacefully waiting for her compound to fill up or for sleep to come. She’s raised not just her own children, but some of her children’s children and she has held the family together since my grandfather passed in 2003.
For some reason I’ve always been drawn to my cucu. Despite having a Kamba name and looking like one (or so I’m told), I’ve always felt a closer connection to this side of the family. This began when I studied abroad in Kenya and spend a significant amount of time with my cousins, many of whom were Kikuyu because we shared a similar age (I have hellllllllllllllllllllllaaaaaaa cousins ranging from 3 years old to like 50 years). They are the ones who reintroduced me to Kenyan culture and still take me around when I’m home. It is also easier to get to my cucu’s place than Mwaitu’s. To get to Mwaitu requires taking a car up a winding breathtaking hill, advance knowledge of where she lives and a full day commitment. If I want to go see my shosh, I can just get into a Matatu downtown, take it to the stage in Kiambu and transfer onto another matatu. The village cucu lives in is so small that hers (and almost everyone else’s) home is just off the main road.
My cucu is a sturdy, straightforward, and kind woman. I’ve heard stories that are not mine to share about her ability to intervene in serious situations and demand resolution. She’s been a widow since 2003, and sometimes I wonder about her heart, especially as my cousins age and begin to leave the village and form their own lives.
I’ve never actually heard my cucu complain. She seems to be content in a way I have never known and is truly fascinating to me. She wakes up each day and lives her life in a peace that emanates from her and invites you into its stillness. I’ve never sat and just existed as much as I did this past December/January when I was staying with her most Thursdays-Sundays. Our daily routines consisted of grabbing firewood for breakfast/lunch/dinner at the respective times, sitting and learning how to make kiondo, being visited by family and village folk, eating, sun sitting and watching an hour of Asian soap operas dubbed into Kikuyu. My cucu is a hard worker, going to bed around 9pm and rising at dawn with the roosters crow, yet she never seems as tired and weary of the world as I do, probably because her world is small and of her choosing.
What I learned about my cucu while staying with her is that she is choosing to live her life the way she wants. I knew that she did not always have this choice as a woman who grew up under colonization and the subsequent African patriarchy that overthrew it, but hearing her tell me with pain permeating the wrinkles on her face about her girlhood desires to go to school instilled a different kind of urgency within me to follow my dreams. When I arrived in Kenya at the end of last year I was at a crossroads in my life. Big transitions were begging to happen and I was shrinking from the necessity of stepping into myself. Spending that time with cucu reminded me that by chasing my dreams I was not only fulfilling myself, but I was honoring those who came before me like my shosh who could not even dare to dream the freedom that is hoarsely calling my name. When I was around 12 and my family visited Kenya for the first time since leaving, she gave us children her blessings in a ceremony. In a different way, I felt that she gave me her blessing this time around to not just tell our family story, but to be a confident author in my personal chapter of it. My cucu has lived many, many lives in the past almost 9 decades. She reminds me that who I am now is not who I am, it is just a part of a longer becoming that I must be brave enough to step into.
Its been difficult to patchwork words together for this post.
I can’t pinpoint why. I’ve known both of my grandmothers and their lives and lessons have impacted me deeply. Tuesday morning while searching for a Toni Morrison quote to use I learned of her death and it became impossible to find the words. Toni inspired me to write, to express myself with written words when the spoken ones failed me. I spent all day crying, re-reading passages from my favorite novels of hers and thinking about grief and the loss of the matriarchs of my family.
By the time I reached the age of 24 all of my grandparents had passed. It happened quickly and without reprieve. In the span of three years an entire generation was gone on both sides of my family (with the exception of my mother’s father, who passed when I was 4 of a sudden heart-attack). Both of my grandmothers suffered with the gradual unrelenting death that is dementia. We witnessed the loss of memories, cities, languages, and eventually all of their faculties. And while the lives of both of my grandmothers impacted me greatly, for the purpose of this post I’m going to focus on my mother’s mother, whom I called Nandi. I spent the most time with her, living in the same house for 13 years. She is the one who visits me the most in my dreams. Her death and my mourning of it also eerily ties in with Toni Morrison’s words, which I will get to later.
As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, my mother and I moved from Colorado to Maryland in 1992 for opportunity and to be closer to family. We moved into a brick townhouse with her older sister, my little cousin, and my grandmother. Nandi had always been one of my favorite people. She was the first person to hold me after my mother’s emergency c-section. She molded my head (which by the way if you’ve ever admired my bald head, you have her to thank for it!). I remember the impossible baby softness of her skin and how her two long braids piled on top of her head were a whimsical combination of the Swiss Miss chocolate girl and a Halo from a renaissance painting. She was gentle and soft spoken but also not to be sassed or messed with. The two times I was spanked my my life was by her. While our single mothers worked full time jobs, my cousin and I were taken care of by our grandmother, who made us Liberian doughnuts when we were good and let us watch TV in her room after homework.
Then, everything changed with a fall. One day as we were either picking up my little cousin from the bus stop or walking to get the mail (I can’t remember) my grandmother’s sturdy legs betrayed her and she fell to the ground. One moment she was walking alongside of me and the next I turned to see her lying on pavement and fallen pine needles, the sun shining on her pain-twisted face. I remember thinking she must have slipped, but concrete was bone dry. Her face contorted in a way I’d never seen, it reminded me of ice cream melting. She walked differently after that first stroke, an eerie zombie-like shuffle. Part of her felt missing. After the second stroke she came downstairs “dressed” once in a cardigan and nothing else. The third stroke brought blinding fits of anger and curse words I didn’t even think my grandmother knew. The doctors diagnosed her with multi-infarct dementia, a debilitating disease that would continue to take pieces of Nandi away with every subsequent stroke. By the time I left for college, she could no longer walk without assistance or swallow her saliva. By then I could hardly recall the sound of her voice. I knew it had a soft quality to it, like water but I could never find the right pitch in my head.
A brief interlude. In my life I’ve had three “supernatural” incidents, or at least incidents that gave me pause as to how I thought the world worked. Two of these occurrences have potentially logical explanations, a dream that felt real, and a coincidence. The first happened at age four, when I felt two large hands grasp the sides of my head and shake it violently. My eyes were closed at the time but I was not yet asleep. I assumed my mother did it because I felt long fingernails piercing each temple so I climbed out of bed and went down to my parents room. When I woke my mother up and asked her why she did it, she was confused and frightened. The second happened the evening of September 10, 2001. I was in bed listening to music when I suddenly had a vivid and strange thought about tall buildings exploding and New York city covered in ash. I felt the hairs on my arm stand and the back of my neck caught a chill. I even wrote it down in my journal at the time.
To this day, the third incident defies logic. It was sometime in the first or second semester of my senior year of college. A loud voice that felt like it started inside of my chest woke me from my sleep around 3:15am, I remember the bright red digital numbers on my alarm clock. It stated in a very matter of fact tone, “She’s dead. But don’t worry, she went easy”. I remember acknowledging it and then falling back asleep. Some hours later while making tea I answered the loud ring of my cell phone in the kitchen. It was my mother in tears calling to tell me my grandmother had died in the wee hours of the morning, sometime around 3am. My automatic reaction was anger and I threw my mug of tea from my hands, shattering it across the floor.
The news of my grandmother’s death shouldn’t have been such a shock. And yet, as I squatted in my apartment kitchen picking up fragments of blue ceramic, I felt my entire body tremble in a way that was completely unfamiliar. I remember my legs giving way to grief, the remaining mug shards piercing my kneecaps. Even as I sobbed I found myself surprised by my emotions. It had been a week since my grandmother opened my eyes and a few days since she had eaten anything. I knew that her time to transition was soon. Perhaps it was the finality of it all. More than likely it was the unexplainable voice that warned me just hours before.
My grandmother’s passing was the first time someone very close to me died. I had known the fringes of grief through distant relatives and a schoolmate’s suicide in high-school. But I had never experienced such a pungent sense of loss, one that penetrated my entire being. I returned to school with a deep depression, crippling anxiety, and the resurgence of my eating disorder. At one point the weight of her loss became so heavy I stopped going to classes and the dining hall. Every time I reached for the door to outside, my heart would race and fear would begin to course through me. So, without the comfort of my Catholicism, I turned to my new religion Black Literature. Authors like Audre Lorde Octavia Butler and Toni Morrison had become disciples, their novels sacred texts. I grabbed my copy of Beloved and scanned it to find a passage I vaguely remembered. It is the critical point in the book where Denver, a timid young woman, has to make the difficult decision to leave her home and find help for her mother, who is being tortured by Beloved, a physical manifestation of her ghost child.
In that moment of reading and underlining this passage I remembering feeling the parallels between me and Denver were so eerie, it caused me to cry. Denver like me was paralyzed by fear of the world outside her home. She is only able to push through when the voice of her grandmother enters her head reminding her through a serious of rhetorical questions of all the stories she’s told her of the strength of her family. She confirms that there ain’t no defense, no reprieve from the cruelty of the world. But the only solution is to know that the world is tough and scary and to “go on”.
I thought about the simplicity yet profoundness of Baby Suggs voice and how my grandmother had her own jewels of wisdom she’d dole out to me. One of Nandi’s favorite sayings for was “Never belongs to God,” because I had a nasty habit of venting to her what I would never be and what I hoped for but knew I could never do. She would scold me for using the word and talking in absolutes, and assured me that talking in such a manor was a direct insult to both her and her God. She taught me that there was power in my soft and timid ways. She encouraged my creativity. And even though our relationship became more strained with my surly teenage years, there was many a night that I would crawl into bed with her to eat coconut candies and watch an episode of Good Times.
After that night of reading that passage and reflecting more on my grandmother, my grief eased a little. There were still tough moments. When I graduated college and returned home, her hospital bed and the orange pill bottles that littered her bedside table remained. Our first Thanksgiving the following fall without her was incredibly somber. And to this day, I have not visited her grave. I do think of her often, and much of what I do now as an artists and designer is inspired by her. My grandmother was also a sewer and a lover of fashion. For sometime in Liberia, she owned her own boutique. I’d like to think she’d be proud of me for following my dreams and for pushing past the “nevers” that still creep up from time to time.
I dream about her. The first dream happened a years after her death and shortly before I began to lay the groundwork for Dopeciety. We are in some sort of store or gallery, there are paintings lining the walls and racks of beautiful clothes. Nandi is dressed in clothes similar to the ones hanging up. She’s smiling at me and answers the question in my head. “These are all yours,” she says. “You made them.”
“But how?” I ask.
“Keep going,” is all she says. “Just…keep going”.
Noirlinians is a love story by two wandering children of the African diaspora