February 22, 2024
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A story of Namibia: PhD student processes personal trauma, genocide through creative writing

Mercia Kandukira, PhD '23, examines the lives of women in a post-colonial society

Mercia Kandukira, PhD ‘23, is researching the stories of women in her native Namibia. Mercia Kandukira, PhD ‘23, is researching the stories of women in her native Namibia.
Mercia Kandukira, PhD ‘23, is researching the stories of women in her native Namibia.

Mercia Kandukira, PhD ’23, is a multidisciplinary writer who believes that balancing poetry, creative nonfiction and fiction is key to good writing.

Because she is an international graduate student from Namibia, many of her works center around the lives of women in a post-colonial society as well as Namibia’s tumultuous history with imperial Germany, which waged a genocide against her ethnic group, the Ovaherero people.

As a creative nonfiction writer and lyricist, her past projects have fused folk music from different cultures, and she is currently writing an opera reflecting on the ongoing effects of genocide.

Her upcoming book, Being When Meant Not to Be, follows the life of Kenouho, a young girl who is sexually abused while living on a reservation in Namibia. In this story, the reservation is read as a colonial space that keeps native Namibians in economic insecurity, and where girls and women are particularly vulnerable to abuse of all kinds.

Kandukira’s book aims to give a voice to the often-erased lived experiences of women and girls, and to uplift them in a postcolonial and patriarchal culture that devalues them.

Q: How did the idea for Being When Meant Not to Be come about?

A: The idea for Being When Meant Not to Be started at the tail end of my MA English program. Initially, I wanted to write about gender-based violence (GBV) in Namibia because of the increasing reports of femicide and rape on the news and in the neighborhood where I grew up. Just before first grade, I lived on a reservation called Omutiuanduko, somewhere in the remote parts of Namibia’s Erongo region. There was no telephone service, electricity or running water, only a communal borehole where the livestock and those who kept them got water. On this reservation, I experienced and witnessed various abuses that I now want to cast a reflective gaze on.

After moving from the reservation to Windhoek, Lisbon and Walvis Bay, I had gained so much perspective and started to wonder why generations of my family lived on a reservation. I learned that displaced Africans had been robbed of their rightful homes and moved to reservations that today are called communal lands (crown lands) belonging to the government, previously the colonial administration.

Second, I wondered where my people lived before they moved to Omutiuanduko. I learned of the Ovaherero and Nama Genocide perpetrated by Germany’s Second Reich from 1904 to 1908. In my research, I came upon an extermination order that directed the Schutztruppen (the German colonial infantry) to wipe the Ovaherero nation off the face of the earth as a response to Ovaherero resistance to epistemic violence. My own mother is Omuherero, and reading this history gave me the sudden realization that I wouldn’t be alive today if the genocide had succeeded in killing all Ovaherero people.

It is from this realization that the title Being When Meant Not to Be arose. The title is inspired by Hamlet, who contemplated existence in eerily similar ways as I have: “To be or not to be, that is the question.” My protagonist grapples with the idea of existence. Was I meant to be? Was I not meant to be? If I was not was not meant to be, who decides one’s right to exist? By whose terms am I meant to exist?

My goal with Being When Meant Not to Be is to understand the mechanisms that made my experiences possible but, more importantly, how are we all connected, because I think the structure is borderless. It is based on some of my experiences, but my childhood experiences may very well be the experiences of women and girls who came before me. The existence of my protagonist is thus cast against the background of colonialism and the genocide. She was not meant to be, but she is — now what?

Q: A big part of your work focuses on women’s trauma and how to process it. Does sharing these very raw and uncomfortable topics make you see them in a different light?

A: Absolutely. I think sharing trauma stories not only lets you see them in a different light but creates a sense of community among those who share these stories. Sharing is how you kickstart the healing process. In the absence of conversation and sharing, you often feel isolated and alone in an experience that is so human and so universal. It’s also in sharing where you see the world could be better, and that’s where you start contemplating ways to make a change and to prevent further abuses from occurring.

The thing I have noticed about trauma stories is that the more you share them, the lighter you feel. Hearing a trauma story is like having a vacuum rip through you. You feel a sense of loss, and speechlessness, but even this is a pathway to healing.

Q: The legacy of colonialism usually focuses on effects such as the economy and cultural changes. What neglected part of postcolonial discussion do you wish to bring up by telling the story of a single girl?

A: Colonialism cannot be divorced from its legacy of economic deprivations and the destruction of indigenous cultures around the world. I have always found it curious that colonialism, much like genocide, tends to be cast in the light of “pastness” — that Africans are now no longer colonized, or the erroneous notion that genocide ends when the killing stops.

The truth is that colonialism, just like genocide, is structural, which means that they both affect communities today. Yes, the colonists are not seen in power, but the reservations they put aside for indigenous people still exist, and the land they took away from the indigenous people is still in their hands.

Telling the story from one girl’s perspective is my entry into a discussion on coloniality, and through her I can reflect on absence and identity. The girl is raised in her mother’s absence, the reservation she lives on has grandmothers but no grandfathers. Where are all the grandfathers? She pursues this question further and comes upon the genocide, so the grandfathers must have fallen there. So our grandmothers carry the story and because they do, we do.

Q: All stories progress differently when you actually start writing it. Did you have any revelations writing this book?

A: Knowing exactly where to start telling the story has been a fun challenge for me. I asked myself a lot of questions: Would I start with 4-year-old Kenouho behind her grandmother’s wattle and daub house, crying in the scorching sun because she had killed a chick while experimenting how huge a rock a chick could swallow, to segue into the eugenicist practices of the early 20th century? In this, I already see a metaphor arising.

Should I start it with Kenouho in a Binghamton University library reading about the Kaiser’s Holocaust while being snowed in on the fourth floor of Bartle Library? Should I start with Kenouho’s ideations during the pandemic, the loss of her mother, her own grappling with a colonized mind? Would I retell what had been told by European historians, or would I start telling the story from the airport using my own perspective, equipped with what I learned from genocide scholars, memory scholars, trauma scholars, my creative nonfiction workshops and the women I have interviewed?

Writing has revealed that over the years I’ve been different versions of myself. The me who is writing is not the me I’m writing about. I create a balance among my personal history, the community history, genocide prevention and writing a story of strength, resilience and survival while being cognizant of the widespread effects of climate change. I just had to record my observations as accurately as I can, and all the elements will come forth and tell the story in more subtle and implicit ways. The goal is to veer toward truth, trying to create peace and prevent future genocides.

Q: There are many avenues of being a writer — poetry, fiction, non-fiction. What is it that pushes you to try all of these styles?

A: Poetry imbeds me in the details of the present but also of the past.

Fiction-writing is telling a detailed human story. It is an attempt to understand the human condition. There’s characterization, which means there’s an attempt on the writer’s side to understand the human fully. The best characters are deep and complex, and their actions make sense.

The memoir is creative nonfiction, but it employs the techniques of fiction-writing to craft a story from real life. Nonfiction grounds me in the facts and provides room for reflection. It helps me reevaluate my position and beliefs, then and now. Memoir gives me a moment to question my own philosophy of life against the background of my story and the research that informs my writing.

I feel like for the writing to be any good, it needs aspects of each genre. The goal is to be balanced enough not to be lost in any one thing, and I think it’s fun to figure out this balance with a specific audience in mind.

Q: Does the Binghamton University community affect your writing?

A: Yes, every community I engage with offers some perspective. The kind of support I receive is encouraging and enforces that what I’m doing is important work.

I receive so much support from the English Department, the Institute for Genocide and Mass Atrocity Prevention (IGMAP) and the friends I’ve made over the years at Binghamton University. I have received a research grant from the Kaschak Institute for Social Justice for Women and Girls, and this has enabled me to travel to Namibia where I am currently conducting my research. The Link Family Fellowship for Creative Writing, as well as the I-GMAP’s Faculty Fellowship, has helped with my travel and lodging within Namibia, and I am so grateful for that. I wouldn’t have been traveling and writing without all the financial and emotional support I get from the University and from faculty and friends who always check on me to hear all about the things I’m discovering on this side of the planet.

Nicola Satchel and Tamás Gerócs are my family in Binghamton, and I am truly grateful to Kerry Whigham, co-director of the I-GMAP, who is always enthusiastic and available to guide and support what I do and offering guidance and insight as a genocide and memory scholar. I’m equally grateful for Professor Leslie Heywood, my academic advisor, who is always checking in and who I know I can count on for both academic and emotional support. She has helped me understand the nature of trauma by introducing me to neuroscience through her Animal Studies class. I also want to thank Associate Professor Joe Weil, to whom I often send my poems for workshops, and Associate Professor Tina Chang, who brings in awesome poets and writers to inspire the work of writers under her tutelage.

I have learned so much from my faculty and cohort when it comes to writing creatively and academically. I remember how a group of colleagues write poems over the summer and workshop each other’s poetry. As a second-language English speaker, I find these collaborations priceless in that they help me understand subtleties in the language.

There are also the benefits of teaching a writing class while perfecting my own craft that helps cement what I learn in the classes I take. I had the opportunity to teach an academic writing class and a creative writing class. Each of these classes taught me how to balance work life, student life and writing life. I appreciate the structure studying at the University gives me, and the professionals and experts I am exposed to. I have met professionals from so many disciplines, and each contributes to my growth not only as a writer but in different and more personal ways.

Q: Can you talk about future projects?

A: Neva Derewtzky and I are working on an opera to musically represent present-day reflections among descendants of mass atrocities. Our first collaborative piece, titled “To Histories in Sand,” is a reference to the human bodies buried during mass atrocities. It is a song of wailing and remembrance that combines Jewish folk music with Outjina, an ovaherero lyrical composition sung primarily by women during mourning or celebration.

Neva and I are now working on an opera to further expand and deepen reflections on genocide through music and lyric poetry. I’m excited to write the libretto and have been looking into the writing process as well as collecting sounds in Namibia to help create the soundscape for our opera.

I am also in the process of facilitating Binghamton University’s I-GMAP to form a possible future memorandum of understanding with the University of Namibia (UNAM), my alma mater. The idea is to introduce genocide studies to our university, since there wasn’t a strong focus on genocide and genocide prevention through my years at the university. I think this relationship will open many avenues for collaboration and growth. To prevent future genocides, it’s important to foster connections like these, so I trust and hope it all works out.

Posted in: Arts & Culture, Harpur