Kristof van Baarle
This is an excerpt from the ongoing book project under the working title How Do You Observe a Stone That is About to Strike You? The near-five-year period is compressed into a fictional one-year cycle.
Day 1 of 365
After an elaborate selection process, I received an email saying: ‘With great pleasure we invite you as a student to our Master of Theatre…’ Being a non-EU student I have to apply for both an entry visa and a residence permit. Because the IND – the Immigration and Naturalization Service under the Dutch Ministry of Security and Justice – is allowed to take up to 90 days to assess my application, I have less than six months to meet all the requirements. The main hurdle is an obligation to show a positive balance of at least EUR 15,000 for a full-time master’s course (or equivalent in foreign currency), making clear that the amount can be used for immediate withdrawal (no savings account, bonds, stocks or likewise). There is no way I have that kind of money, so I get to work; with near animal instincts I hunt for the money as if my life depended on it.
Day 2 of 365
The conditions for my entry visa include an order to report to the Alien Police within the first 48 hours of arrival in Amsterdam. I refuse to comply. Instead, the Student Affairs Office calls the Alien Police and reports that I have arrived in the Netherlands. ‘It’s okay. You don’t have to report to the police in person.’
Day 3 of 365
As part of my application for a residence permit I have to be tested for tuberculosis. At the municipal health service, I am informed that since I come from a high-risk country I have to be tested for tuberculosis every six months for my entire stay as a student. Failure to do so means I will lose my residency.
Day 4 of 365
My registration at Amsterdam City Hall doesn’t go smoothly; it’s one of my many bureaucratic requirements to settle in Amsterdam. In the end, even with all my papers in order they require me to get a new birth certificate from Kenya. My current birth certificate is older than six months. I have to get a new one from Kakamega in western Kenya, then take it to be stamped by the Kenyan Ministry of Foreign A airs in Nairobi, then take it to the Dutch Embassy in Nairobi and pay to have them confirm its authenticity.
Otherwise considered undesirable
Day 5 of 365
I never grasped freedom of mobility until I came to Amsterdam. Despite my many doubts about the city, I am falling in love with the absolute freedom to move from one place to another without worrying about traffic, delays, congestion, potholes, and irregular fares.
Day 6 of 365
Advice from my roommate: do not talk or interact with the neighbors and do not open the door whenever you hear the bell ring unless you are expecting a guest. In fact, try not to attract any attention to yourself.
Day 7 of 365
The conventional definition of a prison is ‘a place or institution of confinement, especially of long-term confinement for those convicted of serious crimes or otherwise considered undesirable by the government’.
“I am falling in love with the absolute freedom to move from one place to another without worrying about traffic, delays, congestion, potholes, and irregular fares.”
Otherwise considered undesirable
Otherwise considered undesirable
Otherwise considered undesirable
Otherwise considered undesirable
Otherwise considered undesirable
Four theories justify prisons. Rehabilitation: they make offenders better, law abiding citizens. Deterrence: harsh punishment means others won’t commit the same crime. Incapacitation: the offender is unable to commit crime since they are locked up and the community is safer. Retribution: prisons seek to exact revenge upon criminals by harming them in exchange for the harm caused to their victims.
Prominent words that result when I search for the meaning of prison are: confinement, restrictive environment, convicted, criminal, undesirable, locked up, guilty, caught, visitation, wrongly convicted, appeal, maximum security, death row, solitary confinement, correctional facility, detention, detainees, punishment, a tool for political repression, chained, authority, prison guards, warden, torture, surveillance, social control, watch tower, panopticon, cells, behind bars, controlled movement, prison walls, offender, offense, inmate, police.
My crime? I am otherwise considered undesirable by the Dutch Government. Subjected to the Dutch policy of discouragement – I am going to be rehabilitated – I must learn ‘to do normal’ because I am already crazy enough. This policy acts as a deterrent – to prevent undesired immigrants from entering the Netherlands. I am incapacitated until I prove myself likable and desirable, i.e. wealthy, healthy and intelligent. It is retribution for being born in a developing nation.
Day 8 of 365
With shame (or is it guilt?) I am reading Dambudzo Marechera’s letter addressed to his ex-girlfriend. I am sure he didn’t mean for this letter, these words, to be public. Was it not meant for Samantha’s eyes only? After being expelled from Oxford University, Dambudzo writes: ‘Since coming over here, I have gone through several stages of identity crisis, self-hatred, self-re-examination, excessive afro-optimism, excessive afro-pessimism, reversal racism, escapism and alienation.’
I resolve the guilt or shame, maybe both, by picking up and reading a copy of Black Sunlight. It makes me dizzy. The black sunlight burns and makes me feel dehydrated, but there is no spring water from page to page, only scorching words in a scolding literary desert. Is it possible to get heatstroke from words? The narrator has been taken prisoner: ‘My crimes were not that great, but Christ! I had been his good court jester. I had made a joke from the back of my head. At his expense. Since then it has been the pit latrine. How dare you insult our most central traditions! He had thundered. I made the mistake of laughing at his unelemental thunder. Through the window into the pit latrine. Christ!’
Day 9 of 365
I come from an oral tradition; I learn best by hearing other people speak and tell their stories. I have started to embrace this side of me; I am listening, really listening. To listen and not interrupt, interject, intrude or impose my narrative on others. Like my friend Chuma says: ‘Let my narrative live, we are often too quick to interrupt.’
Day 10 of 365
‘The essence of power is the ability to define someone’s reality and make them live according to that definition as though it is a definition of their own choosing.’ (Dr. Wade Nobles)
“I come from an oral tradition; I learn best by hearing other people speak and tell their stories. I have started to embrace this side of me; I am listening, really listening.”
Day 11 of 365
Our guest teacher in school is the choreographer Michael Kliën. He has invited us to attend to the other with an ‘absolute gaze’. With this invitation, he introduces us to his concept of mutual vulnerability in which one is radically open to possibilities of other worlds. A concept he backs up with a quotation from Baer on Rilke: ‘The immersion into the world relieves us momentarily from our own self, which in such moments of concentrated submersion can order itself anew.’
At first it was a struggle to engage with Michael Kliën’s methods of embedment and social choreography but after an individual talk with him I start to understand his ways. I am even inspired to write the text for our first public presentation where we intend to present a glimpse of our week working with Michael.
‘We welcome you to experience the economies of mutual vulnerability. For the last week, we have been embedded in various locations in North Amsterdam. We spent five hours a day in these locations and every evening we met to share our experiences and encounters, only instead of verbalizing our feedback we expressed ourselves through dance and movement for two and a half hours. Through this practice we shared and expressed our doubts, frustrations, desires, encounters, non-encounters, beauty, playfulness, tiredness, boredom, boredom, boredom, questions, presences, and the thought body. We did this in a secure space free of judgment, presumptions, opinions, counter arguments, and spectatorship. We invite you to share this space of mutual vulnerability.’
Through Michael Kliën’s artistic practice I see the possibility of opening up a different path to exploring social political issues. This path works by not extracting information as an outsider but by experiencing information in an immersive technique. The self is blended in with the reality allowing the ‘absolute gaze’ to wonder and consciously or unconsciously seek and possibly find an alternate cosmos previously unexplored or invisible.
Day 12 of 365
I am starting to realize each time I narrate my experiences of moving to Amsterdam the words ‘drowning’ and ‘prison’ find their way into the narration without effort. The excessive use of these two words as metaphors for my diaspora experience is making me uneasy. If the essence of a metaphor is in understanding and experiencing one kind of thing in terms of another, based on my metaphors it seems my life chances are drastically reducing since moving to Amsterdam. This conclusion is paradoxical because I left home like many other immigrants to improve my life chances, not to reduce them.
According to George Lako and Mark Johnson, a metaphor has the capacity to change the conceptual system in which are rooted one’s perception of the world and actions within that world. Going with this analysis, it seems my subjective reality is being changed by the drowning and prison metaphors and that change is affecting my reality in the physical world. I, in turn, live by these metaphors which continue to repeat themselves in my life. What must I do to transform these metaphors and their hold on my conceptual system, my perceptions, my actions, and my realities?
I am being ridiculous. It is hyperbolic and too early to equate my experience with such dramatic metaphors.
Day 13 of 365
The insincerity of Amsterdam is starting to dawn on me; I see the cracks all over the edifice.
Day 14 of 365
I take a canal trip with the Black Heritage Amsterdam Tour. The history of Amsterdam told through its legacy in the transatlantic slave trade. Unwilling bodies imprisoned in the bowels of Dutch merchant ships. The horror of learning that after the abolition of the slave trade, Dutch slave owners got compensated by the Government for losing their ‘economic’ means. Some put their money in financial institutions that multiplied the money to such an extent that today descendants of those slave owners still receive compensation every month.
Day 15 of 365
I don’t belong here, I will never belong here, and the system does not hide its disdain for my presence here. But I need to be here, I need the time, space and resources offered here to make certain truths clear, if not for anyone else then for myself. The system here doesn’t have my interests at heart, it never did, it never will.
Day 16 of 365
In a fit of rage, I withdraw my rent money and I am determined to buy a plane ticket out of Amsterdam. I make a plan to go to Schiphol and pay for the flight, but that day I meet Chuma. She calms me down and tells me: ‘Don’t escape, allow yourself to experience what you are feeling, remind yourself why you wanted to come here.’
Day 17 of 365
So, what then does decolonization mean, if I cannot unlearn or un-habit my gaze, and the gaze of others upon me? What does it mean if I can never have a full conversation with my grandmother without needing the help of a translator? What does it mean to make and perform works that deal with a violent history when you cannot undo the impact of that history? Is decolonization an emancipatory practice? If historically no hegemonic power has peacefully restructured, addressed inequalities and shared power, are we then left toothless, digging up old wounds and exposing them to the elements? Is grieving the only emancipatory practice within current dynamics?
Day 18 of 365
I have stopped going out of my room. I am not supplementing with vitamin D. How could I have known that with its higher concentrations of melanin, dark skin is especially vulnerable to the weak winter sun? My diet is poor; it consists of bread, cheese and blueberry flavored soya yoghurt. I have reduced direct interactions with my classmates. In this way, I descend into a pit where I am cuddled by my fears. I can hear Giovanni’s accusatory voice. I have become the kind of person ‘who would imprison himself just to avoid being hit by a car’. I make a note in my journal. It takes a lot of energy to leave the house. A house haunted by Gil Scott-Heron. He is hiding in my closet. I can hear his aged voice singing – no matter how far wrong you’ve gone you can always turn around.
Day 19 of 365
It’s a trap. It’s a trap. It’s a trap. Is a trap not a kind of prison?
Day 20 of 365
I don’t want to be read only as a post-colonial subject. It’s not the entirety of my existence. I am also concerned that in Western Europe, post-colonial is becoming a market label. It’s losing its focus as an earnest practice to decolonize, to shift from colonial mentality and redress huge systemic equalities. Then in my state of doubt, I hear a voice criticizing my agitation: ‘But the content of your work deals with historical injustices and colonial crimes. Are you not also framing yourself in the context of the post-colonial?’
I reply to this annoying voice with the words of James Baldwin – ‘I’ve been compelled in some ways by describing my circumstances to learn to live with them. It’s not the same thing as accepting them.’
I refuse to be imprisoned within the post-colonial frame. I refuse to be tokenized. I refuse to be victimized. But the more I refuse the stronger the framing becomes, the box tightens.
After her lecture, I find the courage to walk up and talk to Prof. Irit Rogo. I tell her my concerns. How tired I am of the victim/oppressor view that has clouded and shaped almost all my relations with the West. She sets me a challenge to look away from this oppressor/victim lens and paradigm and see what other angles are overlooked.
‘… operate through a mode of “Looking Away” in which we might engage by withdrawing attention from where it is demanded and invest another dimension of the work with a modality of attention it has never received.’ (Prof. Irit Rogo )
Day 21 of 365
Drowning is grossly misrepresented in television and movies. For dramatic purposes, it is often depicted as someone screaming for help, waving their hands, slapping and kicking the water, while in fact it is a very quiet death. Your whole body is mobilized to help you breathe, speaking let along screaming is impossible. Imagine struggling to free yourself from an assailant who has a tight grip on your vocal cords, an assailant you can’t fight, push away or run from. In less than a minute if help does not arrive, your stomach and your lungs fill up with water.
Day 22 of 365
But does Baldwin contradict himself because he also writes: ‘The anatomizing of the great injustices which is the irreducible fact of colonialism is not yet enough to give the victims of that injustice a new sense of themselves.’
If anatomizing is understood as a clinical form of ‘describing my circumstances’ – then the act of dissecting, examining, and analyzing gives no relief, gives no path towards learning to live with your circumstances. Maybe not, maybe by anatomizing and learning to live with your circumstances, you have a chance for the imaginary to develop a new sense of being, one where you are no longer marked by colonialism. Otherwise what is the alternative? Ignorance only breeds dissonance.
Day 23 of 365
When you feel yourself drowning stretch your body into a floating position, stay calm and wait for help, make sure to breathe. When in crisis, controlling panic can be the difference between fatality and survival.
Where you look is where you will go
Day 24 of 365
I never knew how to ride a bicycle until I came to Amsterdam. I could blame my mother for this lateness in learning how to ride a bicycle, but this blame cannot stick. Sensibly my mother despised bicycles. Kenyan motorists have a bad habit of caring too much for where they are going and how fast they can get there, such that they pay little to no attention to anyone else on the road. Cycling particularly in Nairobi requires the highest levels of attention. A simple miscalculation can be disastrous.
My journey to learn how to ride a bicycle started in a park: Oosterpark. It’s one of Amsterdam’s oldest parks. It worked perfectly for me. It’s far from the city center so fewer people are there to witness my sure-to-be embarrassing spins, out of control peddling and not so graceful falls. Oosterpark serves a culturally diverse borough of East Amsterdam. Immigrants from Suriname, Turkey, Morocco and Eastern Europe live in the area, each cluster forming its own enclave. The park is planned around a drawn-out pond and like most parks it houses several monuments and sculptures. Two of the most prominent monuments in the park are the ‘National Monument of Slavery’ that commemorates the abolition of slavery in the Netherlands. And the 15-foot high modern sculpture by Jeroen Henneman called ‘The Scream’ depicting Dutch film director Theo van Gogh screaming for mercy. Theo was murdered near the park allegedly for his anti-Islamic lm projects. The story of how the murder happened is one of Amsterdam’s urban legends.
My instructor is Serbian. He has gray hair not fatigued but stylish, he is fit, the way I imagine myself if I ever start working out. He talks with his hands gesturing like a conductor leading a choir of listeners. The first few days were tough,
I was struggling and he was screaming in a Serbian accent ‘you can do it’, ‘don’t look down, look ahead’, ‘keep peddling, don’t forget to peddle’, ‘shift on the saddle until you find the balance’, ‘break…break…break, breeeeak!’ He would hold the handle with a terrified me and run alongside the bicycle screaming instructions. He did not relent. He was determined to teach me as I was determined to learn. His resilience proved useful. I wonder what the people in the park might have been thinking to see a Serbian running after a Kenyan while screaming ‘break… break… break, breeeeak!’
Oosterpark was the setting for my first crash.
After a few test runs, my Serbian instructor began to loosen his grip on the handle allowing me to have more control, but he kept close. And one session he pulled back and I didn’t even notice that I was on my own, when I did I was super happy. There is something very fulfilling in learning a new skill. My happiness however was short lived, and hysteria kicked in. I was peddling towards a corner and just as I had to turn I noticed four police officers huddled in the corner, holding their bicycles. I panicked. I forgot to steer. I forgot to break. I just panicked. And bang, I rammed straight into them, their bicycles collapsed like dominos but their reflexes helped to get them out of the way of a torpedoing bicycle with a panicked Kenyan. I became intimate with gravity and not in a graceful manner.
The officers frowned, granted, and cursed, and made short sentences. I was spared the meaning of their insults because I don’t speak Dutch. Is crashing into police officers a punishable crime? I don’t know. Lucky for me the Dutch officers were in a forgiving mood. One of them, a police woman, gave me the best advice on cycling. She walked up to me as I collected myself from the tarmac, she had cool rider gear – aerodynamic helmet, bib shorts, short sleeved jersey, kickass sunglasses and fingerless leather gloves – everything branded police, all black with the exception of a luminous yellow stripe running across the chest and upper back. Her glasses were darkened such that I could not see her eyes but she had a frown, lines on her forehead, obviously irritated with me. She paused for a second and then she said to me in a heavy Dutch accent: ‘Remember, where you look is where you will go.’
Day 25 of 365
Where you look is where you will go – I am repeating these words almost like a mantra – where you look is where you will go.
Day 26 of 365
I go to sleep with a sinking feeling in my stomach. I shouldn’t have gone online this late in the night. While I was surfing the waves of merciless data, I came across an article. I read and reread it. Biblical famine hits Kenya and her neighbors, millions under threat of starvation. In Eastern Kenya, in a market, a woman is forced to capture and sell an owl to feed her children. No one bought the owl. The article ended.
Day 27 of 365
I am pulled out from my deep sleep by a buzzing sound. A bumble bee has drifted into the room but now it can’t see the way out. The large windows are deceptive. It’s working hard to break free. It’s going to exhaust itself to death. It’s buzzing and working hard but it’s trapped. It can see the outside. See the sunlight. See the potted flowers. But it’s trapped by the glass effect. But it will never give up. Its work is futile. Uninformed, it struggles and struggles, buzzing and uttering its wings, bumping into the double-glazed window, over and over and over again.
The uselessness of its struggle hits me. Who trapped whom? Did the glass trap the bee or the bee trap itself? I am now up and standing and watching when I realize what a cruel act it is to watch another suffer when I have the understanding to alleviate the struggle. All the bee needs is an opportunity to see the exit. Without hesitation, once the door is noticed, the bee will free itself. Pointing to the door is useless for the bee. The bee would not understand the gesture nor comprehend its significance. I have to carry the bee carefully away from the window towards the door. This is a stupid move. Of course the bee reads my action as aggression. It freaks out and I freak out. I don’t know if bumble bees sting, so I am careful not to make any regrettable moves. The bee’s survival instincts awaken. It flaps and flutters and bangs and scales and buzzes. The bee does not understand my intervention as an act of friendship. I am here to liberate you. What nonsense, how thoughtless of me. The bee is too busy surviving to make such considerations.
The bee settles for a moment. It has noticed my presence is unyielding and its situation is unending – a kind of social defeat. I may be projecting when I say ‘settles’. Perhaps it’s tired, tired of struggling, tired of living, tired of fighting, tired of running, it’s tired. It’s resigned to its fate. Silence. I want to explain to the bee why its ecosystem is shrinking and why glass and concrete covers more and more sq. meters than trees and flowers, but I grow self-conscious and decide against speaking to an insect. I poke and prod to be sure, careful not to clip its wings or amputate a limb. It buzzes back to life and holds onto a rolled A4 size paper, instrument of my prodding. It clings to the edge of the paper, the opposite end of the edge grasped tight with my right hand. I tilt the paper up to catch a proper sight of the bee, ready to swing or let go if the bee makes a sting-style move towards my fingers. It’s calm, I am calmer.
I move slowly towards the balcony door but closer to the exit the bee lets go of the paper and flies back to the window – the only exit it can see. Stupid bee, I curse, can’t you see I am trying to help you?! Now I am worked up for no reason and the neighbors are starting to watch. They can’t see the bee, but they can see me jabbing the window in repeated motions with the paper pipe. After a moment, the bee clings again to the paper. This time, I quickly pull the paper away from the window towards the open door. The bee releases its grip and flies away.
Before I even settle down a mosquito, heavy and lazy, glides in. I watch it with contempt. It hovers around the room as though tired of its own weight. It heads for the window, stops and bangs several times with unconvincing urgency, and then hovers away. I chase it out. As it flies out of the house, I slam the open door shut.
Day 28 of 365
I don’t think I need any more instructions for how to ride a bicycle. I can do this on my own. I pick up the bicycle and decide to go for it. It was going great until I came to a slope. I didn’t expect gravity to be so grabby. Fast and efficient I was pulled down the slope. It was like being seized unexpectedly by a bully, first comes the shock and fear, and then the feeling of being out of control, and then the thrill of free flowing. The entire thrill drained out of me when I noticed ahead of me a woman on a bicycle with a child seated on the back.
When in crisis, controlling panic can be the difference between fatality and survival. In my case I freaked out and all the instructions disappeared. I couldn’t slow down and it didn’t help that I just kept peddling. My speed increased. I was getting dangerously close to the woman and her child. Instantly I turned the bicycle, steering it away from mother and child. I steered not towards safety. I was hurtling towards a canal and I was running out of road. Pure panic. I can’t swim.
Just before I hit the water the thought came to me that I should break. And break I did, hard. The bicycle stopped but my body kept moving. Like a heavy stone hurled from a slingshot. I landed with a thud. I was lucky not to fall into the water. I didn’t get off easy though. I twisted my hand, bruised my knees and bumped my shoulders. It was a heavy fall but nothing fatal or emergency worthy. I was bruised more internally. I rose up quickly looked around to see if anyone saw me, picked up the bicycle and walked away.
Day 29 of 365
On my way to school I have to cross the IJ River into Amsterdam Noord. Once in a while before approaching the ferry jetty opposite central station, I stop and stare across the river directly at the new and old laboratories of the Royal Dutch Shell. It has become a ritual to stop and stare at both sites. I am starting to obsess over the Royal Dutch Shell and the ongoing gentrification of its old site into a fantasy river front community with expensive apartments, modern museums, hotels, hostels, startup offices, and arts academy. I can’t help but compare Shell’s gentrication efforts in Amsterdam Noord verses the tragic mess in the Niger Delta.
Day 30 of 365
I remember once while on tour in towns along the East Coast of Kenya and Tanzania from Lamu close to the boarder with Kenya and Somalia all the way to Bagamoyo in Tanzania, a friend had made several attempts to teach me how to swim. In the end she snapped and quit, she said I was unteachable. As she walked away from the hotel swimming pool she turned to me and said: ‘You know what is your problem, you think you can control the water, you think you are made of stone if you let go you will sink to the bottom, let go and trust that the water will carry you.’
I never learnt to let go and in turn never learnt to swim. This memory makes me think that perhaps my challenge with living in Amsterdam is that I am still holding on to my life in Nairobi unable and unwilling to let go, like a stone I am sinking to the bottom of Amsterdam’s canals. Somehow this misguided thinking that I am in control of my diaspora experience has turned me into a prey animal. I am frozen, sniffing and scanning my new environment for unknown and unknowable dangers before I can allow myself to interact freely with Amsterdam.
“Perhaps my challenge with living in Amsterdam is that I am still holding on to my life in Nairobi unable and unwilling to let go, like a stone I am sinking to the bottom of Amsterdam’s canals.”
Day 31 of 365
To investigate the claim that my reality has been hijacked by drowning and prison metaphors I have decided to take two solid actions – I will enroll myself in adult swimming classes at Het Marnix and I will give up my apartment to become a nomad within the city of Amsterdam. In my head, the two decisions make sense; through swimming I will learn to overcome my fears, submerge myself in a different world and reduce the feelings of being overwhelmed. I also think it is impossible to feel imprisoned while living as a nomad, mobility is after all the opposite of confinement. I was completely wrong on both accounts.
Why do you write?
Day 32 of 365
When asked during an interview why do you write, after a pause to think, James Baldwin answers, ‘I write perhaps to describe, someone told me a long time ago so long I don’t remember who it was and maybe it’s something I read, it was conveyed to me when I was in terrible trouble and somebody said describe it, describe it, if you can describe it you can control it, and if you can control it you can get beyond it, in order to describe it you have to face it.’ Facing something means turning and tuning your attention towards the said something. What happens when what you have to face is Dambudzo Marechera’s proverbial stone, the Zimbabwean writer asks: ‘How do you observe a stone that is about to strike you?’ I believe the answer is you can’t. The instant you notice a stone hurtling towards you, instinctive reactions kick in, you inch, you shut your eyes, you cover your face and you do everything within your powers to get out of the stone’s trajectory or minimize damage upon impact. Naturally, these reactions diminish once the threat is neutralized, but what happens when the threat is constant, unidentifiable, vague and un-neutralizable? It means reactionary becomes your default state.
Day 33 of 365
Drawings: Eva Decaesstecker