Awakening

a black and white illustration of a goldfish with a blue background

by Amai Kuda

For each of us, the process and timing of political awakening is different. My mother named me Salmon, she said I looked at her like a judge when I was a baby, so I think that process happened quite early for me. By the age of six I decided I could not eat my best friends, who at the time were some goldfish, so I became a vegetarian. Within a few years I was putting up my own hand-made ‘Go Vegetarian’ posters around the neighborhood. Although, I confess I am no longer vegetarian, I am thankful that my early relationships with animals taught me about empathy, spiritual connection and how to fight for things that mattered to me. I also attended an alternative school that encouraged us to write advocacy letters, and so at eleven years old I was writing to NASA decrying their vivisection practices, and contacting Nelson Mandela to critique post-apartheid South Africa’s continued employment of White police officers who had actively oppressed Black people during the apartheid regime. Having a mother who taught me about the political realities of our people, both past and present, was certainly a critical part of my awareness and engagement as well.

Then I went to a feminist all girls school where I was both empowered to have a voice as a young woman, but was also punished by some White teachers who were disconcerted by a little Black girl, albeit a light-skinned one, having academic gifts in math and science. When one such teacher, named Susan, accused one of the school’s few Black students of stealing a watch and the Principals called the police on this fourteen year-old girl, I decided to organize a walk-out.  The Principals then had to answer to us, the student body, for how they had reacted to our schoolmate. It turned out that the teacher had tormented that same student all year long, even inviting other students’ to ridicule her in class. I learned from a young age that in White so-called ‘progressive’ circles we, Black and Brown folk, were far from safe.

From grades ten to twelve I went to Weston Collegiate Institute, a high school resembling a prison where two thirds of the student body were people of colour and the majority of the teachers were White. They had no pretentions of ‘progressiveness’ and I observed the policing of Black students’ bodies and ways in which young Black people were miseducated. I listened to the Fugees and Dead Prez. My best friend and I performed Lauryn Hill, Bob Marley and Mahalia Jackson songs in duet at Black History shows, and I made my peers uncomfortable when I sang “Strange Fruit.” When I noticed the double standard that allowed Jewish or Muslim students to wear religious head-coverings, but barred young Black women, like myself, from wrapping our heads as part of a longstanding spiritually-rooted tradition, I created a petition to protest this injustice. It was during this time that I really clarified my own views about the problems of institutional education. I found the learning environment oppressive, from the rigid schedule and the constant grading, to the rows of desks and fluorescent lighting. I found it unfair that our education should be in the hands of people that didn’t love us and, often, even despised us.

Despite this unfriendly environment, I did learn a lot. I took anthropology and learned about the Yanamamo, the Bunyoro and the San peoples.  My readings confirmed my hunch that land-based/Indigenous societies seemed to have much healthier ways of doing things, and problems of homelessness, imprisonment, poverty, environmental degradation and racism were non-existent when these Indigenously living peoples were left to their own devices. In these societies where people were organized into smaller communities, one was not educated in cold institutions, but by one’s community members. One was not ruled by a distant stranger that one had never met. One knew where one’s food came from and where one’s waste went.  I learned how each Indigenous society had a complex spiritual tie to the earth that allowed them to live in relative balance. They were not perfect, but to my mind their ways of life were a far cry above the soul-sucking, oppressive, environmentally destructive path that our society was taking. I decided my career goal was to become a hunter-gatherer.

I pursued this goal to the best of my ability at the time. I spent a summer at Curve Lake First Nation with a family friend, Alice, so that I could begin to learn from the people whose land I was on about how to live in a better way with the land. I had begun visiting Curve Lake with my mom when I was about thirteen years-old. It was during discussions with Alice’s kids, who were mixed Anishishinabeg and White, that I realized that being mixed didn’t make one less Black or less Native. I realized that identifying with one’s marginalized identity was a kind of resistance.  So in the summer after I finished high school I mostly spent my time volunteering at the Curve Lake daycare centre and hanging out with the woods and lake there. Then I had an opportunity to spend a few months up in Red Lake with Alice’s daughter’s family. During my time with her family I did housework to earn my keep, and volunteered a bit with a local Indigenous youth group, but I actually spent most of my time in the bush. I had always loved the woods and during this period I determined that the trees were to be my main teachers. I learned to listen to them, and to connect to my own ancestors through them. This practice has been my source of guidance and wellness ever since.

 

Although I was keen to continue pursuing my career path as hunter-gatherer/tree-talker my mom was pretty keen for me to get my butt back in school. I was not to squander the opportunity that our ancestors had fought so hard for. So, having been granted scholarships to cover my tuition, I attended Trent University, which I had selected because there was lot of bush on the campus. I planned to camp out in the woods the whole time. I even took a tent and all my best woods clothes and everything, but then my Granny warned me that I would surely be raped if I slept outside alone. Having had this idea firmly planted in my head I conceded to sleeping in my dorm and just spent as much of the daytime as possible in the bush. I continued to learn from the trees and they guided me to pursue my commitment to social justice by working in solidarity with the Indigenous peoples’ of Turtle Island.

It was at Trent that I met Laura Hall and re-met Urpi Valer-Pine, the two Indigenous women with whom I co-founded the group Seven Directions. Urpi had, in fact, been one of the brown students who was also tormented by the same Susan teacher at the feminist all girls’ school.  Although, we had not been friends in middle school, all these years later we discovered that we shared a commitment to social justice, particularly Indigenous rights and gender equality.  So we formed a group. We hosted Decolonization Discussions and consulted with Indigenous elders about what decolonization could actually look like and how we could best contribute to it. We also fundraised for Indigenous groups fighting for their land, like the Secwepemc in BC and I took the bus out West to do some front-line land defending with Cheam First Nation.  I learned a lot in my time at Trent. I actually created my own degree specializing in ‘Decolonization: Indigenous Cultural Reclamation in Turtle Island and Africa.’ The program included Native Studies and African studies courses as well as a self-directed study course on genealogy and another on the role of religion in the colonization of Africa.

After three years spent exploring ideas of decolonization, consulting with local Indigenous community members and working in solidarity with land-rights struggles, Seven Directions began working towards the creation of a centre for decolonization. The idea was to buy land and establish a space where Indigenous peoples and allies could relearn their  land-based traditions and learn to live according to the treaties.

It took us some ten years to pull together the money to buy the land, which we finally did in 2013, and today we’re still working on building the infrastructure for the centre. Last year the group was able to host a first Hide Tanning workshop for the local Indigenous community with a grant we received. However, we found that it was a challenge to bring large groups into the space without sufficient resources to accommodate them. We’ve had to go back to fundraising so that we can create the necessary infrastructure, such as a big kitchen and showers. We are working on building both physically, emotionally and spiritually. We are still learning how to share space so we can function as a healthy community, while also developing relationships with the local Algonquin and Metis communities. the center.

As we work through the challenges of building an alternative to a colonial way of living, I am sometimes frustrated by how slow the process is. I know patience is a virtue, but at times I panic when I look up from this work to see how incessant and tireless the forces of destruction are as they tear up the earth in the name of profit, displacing our peoples and gunning us down or jailing us if we resist.  I am terrified that there will be nothing left by the time we relearn how to live in a good way. Perhaps it was in answer to these worries that I dreamt one night about riding a bus where I could not distinguish between people and baggage. In another part of the same dream I was with some Batois people, my ancestors, and we were learning the names of plants as we walked up a hill.  I woke up with thoughts of the Montgomery bus boycotts in my mind and I knew that we had to get off the bus! I felt that those of us who believed in a different way of doing things had to engage in a boycott as powerful as that of the Civil Rights movement. So I started plotting. After many conversation with Black, Indigenous and POC activists who seemed on a similar page to myself I wrote the Call Out below.

The Call Out is a work in progress. At present it is being revised to be more reflective of the Indigenous voices in our movement.  The movement itself is a work in progress. But I have to say I’m proud of some of that progress. Due to the overwhelming support from community members, we already have a website and a beautiful flyer that serve to educate people about how they can take steps towards creating a more just world. We’ve held three powerful actions that at once feed and honor spirit while, simultaneously resisting oppression. All this has happened in only a few months. We have many great social justice groups within the coalition already and we are building steadily all the time.  I know this revolution that we dream of will not happen overnight, and I know that we have to take time to do things in the right way, rather than rushing forward to our death, as the wise ones say. But I also know we are in a powerful moment and timing is everything. I know that my job is to listen closely to the guidance of my ancestors whether they speak through trees or dreams. I must keep my feet planted firmly on the soil and offer thanks and water daily in the constant flow of reciprocity. In doing so, I can play my role, not unlike like the salmon who performs the ultimate sacrifice to make way for future generations.


 

Amai Kuda
Amai Kuda is a Toronto based singer/songwriter, community activist and the mother of a young child. The name Amai Kuda means “mother to the will of the creator” in the southern African language Shona. Amai Kuda is a co-founder and co-coordinator of three organizations, Moyo Wa Africa, Seven Directions and R3, dedicated to the decolonization of African peoples and to indigenous solidarity respectively.Daughter of the internationally awarded writer, Nourbese Philip, who has used her work to speak out about all kinds of injustice, Amai Kuda grew up going to demonstrations and listening to her elders passionately discuss the history and future of African peoples. Her first music video, All My Fine Shoes, was part of The Reel World Film Festival 2010 and in October of 2011 she launched her first CD called ‘Sand from the Sea’, an indie release which she produced herself.