We might be many but I wish we could acknowledge each other after all we still need each other

Wanjiku Kiare-Sanderson

I first came to New Zealand in 1979 with the theatre group called Keskedi, it was a professional theatre group and a black community centre in Islington London. I was working for them as an actor as well as an all rounder and we were in New Zealand as we were asked to perform in Maraes, prisons and community centres. 

When I came to live in New Zealand it was in 1982/3 and it wasn’t much of a struggle because the population was much smaller. I remember craving and yearning to meet a black person. One day I was walking along Queen Street when I spotted a black man across the street. Without checking the traffic I ran across the road to shake his hand. That’s the reality of how lonely it was to be an African and black in New Zealand at that time. I missed my mates in London because over there the population of people of African descent is a huge part of the cultural makeup. It was a shock to the system to be part of what was considered a minority culture. I missed a lot but life went on and the majority of Kiwis at that time sympathized with me and they would say “one day you will get liberated” because as far as they were concerned we were all from South Africa and we were all suffering from the impact of apartheid. 

In the 1970’s when I was still in Kenya, the National Theatre was only doing white plays and they didn’t do African or black plays. At the time we were doing the ‘Trial of Didian Kimathi” and because we were not allowed in the theatre we were practicing in the foyer. One day we were rehearsing and this white woman went into the green room where the Master drummer was rehearsing and warming up his drums. She walks in and asks him what he is doing in there and kicks the drum. Kicking a master drummer’s drum is like kicking him in the guts and as a defense mechanism he went wild at snapped at her. The next day we were about to perform, we were in our traditional African costumes and the cops turn up and tell us to line up on the staircase. We were all wanted there because the white woman from the previous day wanted to point out who had assaulted her. The Director even went and attempted to speak to the police to inform them that when the drummer pushed the woman he was protecting his drums. As the police were with the woman trying to figure out who it was a chant irrupted amongst us, we hadn’t planned or rehearsed it, we didn’t even know we were going to be to be taken, lined up and questioned. The chant started “I did it, I did it” and then it grew so powerful, it felt like it was coming out of our pores. The white woman started shaking and said, “Oh my God they look alike”. I was only 17 when this happened and the next day the story was in the newspaper.

I bring this up because it’s this whole narrative about Africa being a country or being one place. When the Kiwis would sympathise sometimes I just had to say South Africa is not Africa because they couldn’t help it at all. At that time it was during the Springbok Tour and they knew of South Africa because of the rugby. The loneliness and yearning to be around other black people led to Martin and I’s house being called ‘The Embassy’, a place where people used to gather together to play darts and have a BBQ. It was such a small community but we all knew and supported each other. 

It reminded me of the times in London when black people came together to support each other and also to protest. When I arrived back in London after visiting New Zealand for the first time, I was called to an urgent meeting. The meeting was to inform me of the group that was to gather outside the Kenyan Embassy the next day to protest for Ngugi wa Thiongo’s freedom. They informed me that everyone had placards and all we had to do was meet the next day. I arrived outside the Kenyan Embassy and we were chanting “free Ngugi wa Thiongo”, then I looked in front of me and at the top of the building they had cameras taking photos of us but I didn’t care. I looked around me and realized that I was the only Kenyan, out of my friends, the Caribbeans and the African-Americans I was the only Kenyan. All the ones that were organizing they did not turn up. I then said to everyone around me see that guy over there taking photos he is a CID. They said my sister do you want us to block your face, I said no, if they want me they will know where to get me but they will not stop me saying free Ngugi wa Thiongo, I will say it. A couple of weeks after the protest I was planning my trip back to Kenya and the same group of friends were worried about me, they enquired if I was sure if I wanted to go just incase government officials were waiting for me. I said they are not going to stop me from visiting my mother; that is how they control us, they rule us because we are living in fear. 

The difference about the diaspora community then and now is if I tell the story of running across the street to shake someone’s hands some people will laugh. Nowadays you say hello to someone and they look down and don’t respond. You almost want to say hello I am not charging you just say hello back. I attribute this change because of the population there is more of us now. We might be many but I wish we could acknowledge each other after all we still need each other. It is important to have a strong African community and I am glad that there are a growing number of voices that are articulating the cultural aspects of Africa. Now, Kiwis are learning more about Africans who are living in New Zealand than they did in the 80s.