Tuesday, 20 January 2015

Eleven Minutes - Paulo Coelho (Book Review)

 This review provides a short synopsis of the book Eleven Minutes by Paulo Coelho and what I took from reading it. The power of words is clearly stronger than we'd like to imagine.

I have been an avid reader for the most part of my life, UNTIL I “grew up”. And I started telling myself that I have no time to read anymore. I had a long to read list for the longest time, then I realised that so many are the times that I have time to do other things but no time to read. I had totally forgotten how amazing it is to pick up a book and not want it to end but also not want to put it down. How you look for every chance you get to flip another page. And thank God the books that have pulled me back to reading were the kind that I could relate to as a human being. The author pulls you into the story and you totally immerse yourself into it. I actually cried while reading A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini.

So my reading fire woke up after a very long time and I decided to run back to Paulo Coelho. I got down to reading Eleven Minutes and this being the second book I have read by him, I had a feeling I would not be disappointed. And I wasn’t. This certain book is about a prostitute and I found it so funny how the book started with “Once upon a time, there was a prostitute called Maria”. The title is actually about how sex is so idolised yet the act itself doesn’t take more than eleven minutes. Anyway, it was deeper than sex. As freaky as this sounds, I feel that this book changed my life and my view of things. Maybe it’s the hullabaloo for New Year new things but for some reason I think this kind of change will last. 

It starts out in a remote village in Brazil where Maria was born.  She had dreams of having a wedding someday, a husband and a good life and she and her prince charming could conquer the world. But after a few innocent brushes with love, she decided there was no such thing as love and “love spoiled everything”.  She also wanted to visit Rio de Janeiro for a week after working in a draper’s shop for two years and had saved enough. So off she went. A chance meeting in Rio with a man who asked her to be the main attraction in a night club in Switzerland sets the pace for the whole novel. She travels to Switzerland to become a samba dancer and a Brazilian star but quits after realising that wasn’t what she wanted. She wanted to become a model but since things didn’t work out as she had expected, she moved to Rue de Berne, Geneva’s red light district. Despite bulk of the story featuring her as a prostitute, this was one determined and hardworking prostitute. As fate would have it, she met a young Swiss painter, Ralf, one day in a restaurant when she was looking for the “route to Santiago”. When she was leaving, Ralf asked her to wait as he wanted to paint a portrait of her as she had an “inner light” in her. They click, almost immediately and she is torn between her sexual fantasies with Ralf and her love for him. Plus she has no faith in love as it has caused her so much distress in the past. 

After a year working at Copacabana and meeting Ralf, she decides that it is now time to go back home. She was also afraid that letting love takeover would lead to her being lax about her promise to go back to Brazil. So she plans her trip back where she envisaged buying cows, a small farm, inviting her parents to live with her, taking a couple of workers and starting a business. Anyway, as fate would have it, Ralf followed her without her knowledge to Paris where she had a connecting flight to Brazil. All this after she had given up after her movie-like hope of Ralf coming to Geneva airport and begging her not to go and kissing her and wrapping his arms around her and  “The End” showing on an imaginary screen after their happy reunion. Of course this wasn’t a movie. So I guess, the rest as they say, is history. Who am I kidding – I don’t know what happens next as Paulo decided that was where the book would end. Anyway I took a lot from Maria, the prostitute.

This prostitute was looking for a way to better her life. It led to her working to be the best prostitute there is and she earned the admiration of clients and her boss and the envy of her colleagues who were also awed by her hard work. I know all this sounds icky – talking about how a prostitute was the best at her job, but Paulo has a way of using the weirdest analogies to explain something deeper. Through his words and his characters, he pushes you to go beyond your limit. To look beyond your weaknesses and strive to be a better human being. Not to brood over spilt milk or things that are beyond you. How to work with what you have and learn to be the best in this very short and very long life. And that’s just what Maria (I have stopped calling her the prostitute) did. She was heartbroken so many times but in the end she found love – in the most unexpected place. She worked so hard, so diligently.  She was not settling for less. She would go out of her way to learn how to be better at what she did. I actually related with her, with the struggles she went through, with all the negative things she had gone through and how she rose above them. I am the kind to sit and wallow in sadness about things but her character showed me that you have to be happy with what you have. What will wallowing and feeling sad for yourself do for you? For a little bit its ok but certainly not for extended periods! After all, I alone am the master of my fate: my happiness and my sadness. Her character showed me the value of working diligently, in everything you do. Either you do it to the best of your ability or you don’t do it at all. She never accepted less. So Paulo Coelho, through Maria, pushed me, at a time of the year when it’s all about resolutions, to understand that there is nothing I cannot overcome if I set my heart to it. That there is nothing I cannot conquer if I have the will and spirit. That I can achieve great things if I believe in myself. If I have positive energy. So 2015 – thank you for bringing back Paulo Coelho in my life, at the most opportune moment. Thank you for awakening in me the zest for great things that I let sleep for a long time. Thank you for the shove given to me, through Paulo and the positive people I have surrounded myself with. As he said in The Alchemist “When you really want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.” And “We warriors of light must be prepared to have patience in difficult times and to know the Universe is conspiring in our favour, even though we may not understand how.”  Let’s kick ass in 2015.

PS: I have just gotten into reading another of Paulo Coelho’s books Veronika Decides to Die. I might not blog about it but the first few pages are already so enthralling. Look out for the best quotes from Eleven Minutes in my next post.


Friday, 19 September 2014

The Face of Humanity: Personal review of Terror at the Mall

As we mark one year since the horrific WestGate attack, and after the release of the documentary "Terror at the Mall", I feel the need to celebrate humanity. It does truly have a face, and we saw it with the likes of Abdul Haji, Harish, Nura Ali among others... 

When I watched the documentary Terror at the Mall, I felt like I was watching a harrowing horror movie. It felt so surreal to actually see what really happened.  Most of us knew bits and pieces of what happened but not in such intricate detail.  And as the filmmaker Dan Reed intended, I immersed myself fully into what was happening. With that came anger, disgust, sadness and tears.  I felt the fear. I kept imagining how anyone stuck there felt. And it makes me so sad. One year ago, four young men aged 19 – 23 wreaked havoc in my beloved Kenya. And how our forces dealt with it was very disgusting. This documentary took me back one year ago, when Kenya was at a standstill. When my country was the scene of a ghastly horror movie.  When all most Kenyans did was stay glued to broadcast and social media just to get an update on what was happening. And to wait for the government spokesman to feed us more lies…

I was particularly angered by the soldier who said “we are here now” when civilians (one even mentioned that he was a soldier in his home country) persuaded them to let them go in and at least save those who had been injured and alive. So many people lost their lives due to the late response and sheer incompetency. Most survivors said they were waiting for armed forces to go in and save them. They failed. They didn’t go in on time. They were waiting for SWAT.  Lord, Jesus. When one Asian man screamed in anger “By the time you react people will die” – that just broke my heart.  And true – lots of people died due to the incompetence of our oh so dear “disciplined security forces”. But the world has called your bluff. I hope you enjoyed the loot.

However, I have decided to dedicate my review to the heroes of the day. In as much as I cried and felt so angered by the whole ordeal, this documentary made me fall in love with humanity over and over again. Yes it does exist amongst some of us. The act of valor portrayed by Abdul Haji, Harish and the plain clothes police men just blew me away. They didn’t not know each other prior to the attack but together they risked their lives to save so many people. I fell in love…  I am and will always remain awed by the courage these men had. They are a clear indication that humanity knows no boundaries. No religion, no tribe, no color…It exists to those who believe that no matter what beliefs you hold, your hearts functions the same. You are simply human. Shabaab which is predominantly Somali did this horrific act in the name of Islam. But the man who did most of the saving is ethnically Somali and religiously Muslim.  So my stance remains, they did not do this in the name of Islam! That is not what the teachings of Islam stand for. This is just pure madness. And as much as this video is sad, I found it funny when one lady said that one terrorist actually cocked his head and started making baby noises and faces at her baby before letting them go. Well, maybe that’s a mix of a little humanity and madness. I don’t know. 

Another act of immense humanity that blew me away was the oneness during the whole ordeal. Humanity really did win.  Instances such as the Kenyan lady grabbing the American woman’s child to safety under the computer table that was later in the middle of the cross fire. The French lady taking those kids – some weren’t hers – one was African – out of the mall. The Asian lady carrying the little American baby out of the mall. Cute little Portia running bravely to Abdul Haji. These people had all never met. But in the face of adversity, they let humanity reign. How I fell in love with the little boy who told the terrorists that they shouldn’t shoot people coz it’s bad. How he asked for chewing gum when he was given a chocolate bar. The little boy who told them off for killing his mama and brother.  The innocence of children is such a beautiful thing. To all the mothers out there, I salute you. It was clear that the primary fear of all mums in there was their kids being hurt. All they cared for was getting them to safety if possible. That is truly beautiful. Red Cross volunteers, this post would be incomplete if I didn’t salute you. God bless your souls.


I have watched this video a couple of times and no it doesn’t get easier with each view. I still feel angry, I still cry, I still feel horrified and disgusted each time I watch it. But it does have a beautiful side. We see humanity. We see ordinary people going out of their way to save strangers. We see kindness. So today, I celebrate humanity. I celebrate the brave people who went out of their way and risked their lives to save others. The selflessness. The courage. The bravery. You are appreciated. You are celebrated. 

As we mark one year since so many people perished in that horrific attack, I pray that their souls rest in eternal peace. For those with permanent scars, emotional, mental or physical, may you find peace and healing. May you relieve yourself of the burden of hate and forgive those capable of such madness and pray that they will one day also believe that humanity prevails. For our heroes, thank you! Thank you for showing us that humanity is such a beautiful thing.


Friday, 11 April 2014

The crime of ethnicity: The plight of Somalis in Kenya

I am appalled, if not disgusted, by the way our security forces are treating Somalis at the moment. I understand that this crackdown is in a bid to curb the terror menace that our country has been facing. I understand that a crackdown of some sort is necessary for the safety of Kenyans. I understand that a crackdown on Somalis is what would be deemed as the proper channel to use seeing as Al-Shabaab are predominantly Somali .What I don’t understand is the need to denigrate Somalis, to this extent that they are being caged. I saw an image online of an old Somali woman caged and this created a rage in me. I felt so infuriated that another human being is being treated like this. I feel that arresting Somalis, extorting money from them for their freedom and other human rights abuses is just a scapegoat. What they are doing to Somalis is certainly not going to protect Kenyans.

I feel that a summary on Al Shabaab’s history and creation is needed. Just like the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) that has been causing distress and other human rights abuses in parts of Uganda, South Sudan, Central African Republic (CAR) and the DRC, Al-Shabaab emerged out of genuine grievances but later evolved into a terror group .When the groups stemmed up, they were indeed soldiers of the same struggle.  They were seeking to liberate their people. LRA came to be to liberate its people from internal circumstances. The people of Northern Uganda felt they were being marginalised. Northern Uganda is known for poverty. Since colonial days, economic power lay in the southern part of the country and so did the key political figures and the military elite. Al shabaab’s emergence was fuelled by patriotic militancy against the abrasive counter-insurgency tactics used by Ethiopian forces against the Islamic Courts Union, which was an upsurge of Islamic fundamentalism. They saw themselves as the liberators from the Western backed Transitional Federal Government. As it is with most groups that come up in this way, they both later started employing terror on people with other acts of violence and use religious fundamentalism as a mobilisation factor. We are all aware that we just need a common belief/ideology to mobilise people for a cause. Well, they have done just that. Used religion to garner troops and have created terror and fear amongst us. And now, in retaliation for Al Shabaab and other group’s acts of terror, our security forces are waging an unjust war against Somalis. The criteria for police screening is their ethnicity; that is their singular offence. I do support an operation that would rid the country of terrorists/criminals. Any sane person would, I mean, we are all tired of terror attacks on our land. What I don’t support is the manner in which it is being conducted. This operation is highly unlikely to rid us of those criminals we seek to sieve out. It is just a means for police to extort money from the criminals and many innocent.               

From the existing stereotype of Somalis, we may feel justified to cluster all Somalis as Shiftas, terrorists and Shabaab but this is wrong. These same Somalis have been terrorised by Al Shabaab in Somalia. These same Somalis are trying to eradicate Al Shabaab because it has a negative effect on their wellbeing, just as it does for all of us. They too are tired and want peace. Not all Somalis are terrorists/Al-Shabaab and we cannot deprive them of their right to be human! Is it that Somalis are perceived to be lesser citizens? Do Somalis have to keep suffering the same fate over and over again? Do we remember the Wagalla massacre in the North Eastern part of Kenya? Let me remind you. Since time immemorial, Somalis have had clan conflicts. This is the one of the main reasons for conflict in Somalia and even in our own North Eastern Kenya. So in 1984, Kenyan troops decided to go there and help diffuse these conflicts. What ensued was blood shed of Kenyans on Kenyan soil. Approximately 5,000 Somalis (the real figures have never been known) were denied water and food for days, raped before they were executed. In my opinion, this isn’t a war against terrorism. It is far from it! The poor Somalis are being taken to the Kasarani Concentration Camps (this term reminds me of the concentration camps that existed during the Holocaust) while Somalis with cash are paying their way out of it. So how do we know if that  person who is able to pay their way out of the concentration camp isn’t a sympathiser of Shabaab/terror groups? By the amount of cash they are willing to give to the security forces? Someone please tell me, how is this then a war against terrorism? If you tell someone you have bundled up into a lorry that if they give you a couple of thousand shillings they will be let free, how is this war against terror? Maybe a war against aliens or poor Somalis or people in limbo without refugee status but what war against terror is this? We are waging war on our own. For those without papers, I am not for this BUT who would want to live in a refugee camp where education doesn’t go beyond high school level? Like is inherent to all humans, they too yearn for a good life. Better than they have lived or their parents and relatives have had. Our borders are porous, not that it is any fault of the people who manage to walk into Kenya, so if they actually got access without any resistance at the border, it is our government that has erred and not those who sneak in. I understand that this too makes it easier for terrorists to come in. BUT if our borders weren’t so porous, then maybe we wouldn’t have Al Shabaab/terrorists infiltrating our country. If our security forces handled incidents like the West Gate attack with as much diligence as they are collecting money from these Somalis, maybe we wouldn’t have people dead. Are we forgetting that we have some Al Shabaab members called Omondi, Kamau, Mutiso, Kibet etc? It is largely Somalis but other people too have become members of this group. I am not pro Shabaab, please don’t get me wrong, but I don’t believe in taking people hostage due to their ethnicity or increased xenophobia and terming them all as terrorists. Being Somali is not a crime. They may be or may not be refugees. They may be or may not be citizens. But what they inherently are is HUMAN. 

Every waking moment, even I am scared of being in public places. When in a mall and lights go off, I feel petrified. But I don’t think it’s fair to blame this on Somalis. Even if some have refugee status, we have refugees all over the world and they are not all terrorists. They have been forced by circumstances to seek asylum elsewhere, somewhere safer. My opinion is that if this practice keeps going on, if people keep getting arrested for being Somali, even if they aren’t radicalised, if they go free, they will have been radicalised by default. Not because they want to, but because they have been forced to. When we demonize Somalis for being Somalis, we are in essence increasing radicalisation and not decreasing it. If that is the end goal that is trying to be achieved, then it may as well be seen as a failure. I mean, if you arrest and punish me for being a thief and I have never stolen in my life, I might as well steal to feel that I deserve such treatment.  Our war on terror is far from over. Not if these are the tactics. You are not beefing up security, you are terrorising people. Kenya needs to up its security tactics. Not by caging humans up at Kasarani “concentration camps" but by finding viable solutions to our security issues.

BONUS: A link to a pamphlet on what you should know when someone is arrested and how police are supposed to treat you.