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Spotlight: Aleya Kassam

Spotlight: Aleya Kassam

Spotlight is a monthly series showcasing work by a member (or member emeritus) of Jalada Africa. Each month, we explore poetry, fiction, nonfiction, photo/video essays, comics, films: it could be anything, as long as it’s produced by a Jaladan. We also highlight their past and present contributions to the Collective, whether editorial, managerial, or organizational.

Aleya Kassam is a member of Jalada Africa. She is a Kenyan feminist, storyteller, writer and performer. She is widely experimental with form – from page to stage, screen to speaker, micro fiction to memory poems, docu theatre to participatory filmmaking, blogs to twitter threads – she loves to play with different ways people experience story. 

Her first writing home is her blog, Chanyado which was featured several times on the Global WordPress Discovery, and has been described by Nanjala Nyabola as ‘shuffling between personal narrative and political observation, the blog allows you to take a step back and think about the real impact of political or social issues on the individual.’ 

Her creative non-fiction and poetic prose have been published and performed on multiple platforms and stages, from Nairobi to Kampala, Kigali to Stuttgart, and her children’s story, The Jacaranda Tree, was longlisted for the Golden Baobab Prize for African Children’s Literature. She has performed in Stories from the Mall; A Westgate Memorial, And Then She Said – 5 Novels Re-imagined, The Vagina Monologues, Red Rabbit, White Rabbit, Jalada’s Upright Revolution, TEFBrazen, as well as Sitawa Namwalie’s acclaimed shows Silence is a Woman and Cut off my Tongue. She also co-wrote and starred in the poetry performance shows, State of the Nation Undressing, and Love, Loss and Discovery. 

In this time of COVID, Aleya and Sitawa Namwalie, have been performing a series of virtual theatrical experiences entitled The Narratives Are Being Crafted Now, which centre African philosophy, history and culture as a gift to the world to navigate our way through this crisis and imagine differently. Aleya is also the proud ‘A’ in The LAM Sisterhood, a story company that fills the world with stories for African women to feel seen, heard and beloved, such as the award winning stage show Brazen, un-invisibling the stories of extraordinary women from Kenya’s history, and the upcoming Brazen podcast.

Her works in progress include; Pani Puri, a musical theatre piece; Jugni, a Young Adult novel and an as yet unnamed children’s poetry book for her little nephew, her Mithu. Aleya is also a jewelry maker and samosa designer. Find her on twitter/instagram as @aleyakassam 

This month she shared “Sabr and Shukr”, a personal essay on grief and the things that keep her up at night. In her own words:

“I wrote this because I didn’t know where to put my grief. At a time when our rituals of mourning and soothing were no longer available, when we couldn’t gather, and couldn’t hold each other, when we were alone and felt alone…what are the ways of offering care to each other? This piece is a meditation and an offering for survival.”

Sabr and Shukr

I don’t remember much from my first funeral. We stood in line waiting to view the body. When it was my turn, I observed how the body was ashy, its arms arranged stiffly by the hips, nostrils oozing with cotton wool. I didn’t know who the dead person was. My mother told me that didn’t matter. In our community, you don’t have to know who the person is in order to pray for their passage to Heaven. Every utterance counts, she told me. And in the haze of incense, I pictured the body’s soul as a shimmery soapy bubble bouncing gently upwards with each gust of prayer. I was eleven years old.

Over the decades I would go to many funerals in our community, some of people I knew, others were complete strangers. We all show up for each other because we hope that when it is our time, everyone will show up making the journey of our souls easier. The rhythms settle into our bodies. In the moment when the person’s face is covered up with cloth, I inhale deeply so they don’t suffocate, and then we all stand up and everyone’s heart breaks together as the family begins to weep again. The men carry the body out of the hall, jostling to help carry the weight, whilst the women sing and sniff. In that moment we are all mourning our own lost loved. And then we line up for Dil Soji, condolences from our hearts,  and one by one we offer each family member, Sabr, Sabr, Sabr. And they whisper Shukr, Shukr, Shukr.

Our funerals are brief. They begin at 9.30 am, and the body is taken by the men to the cemetery an hour later. By midday the burial is complete and the men have returned. Then we all eat the same meal of tangy yellow dal served with rice or slices of soft white Supaloaf bread, and crunchy pickled masala carrots that leave turmeric stains on your fingers and white funeral Punjabi Suit. Then we go home.

Read the rest here.

Aleya Kassam contributed “Sext Me” to Jalada 01: Sext Me Poems and Stories (2014) and hosted the four-part “Bodies” podcast series that took a deep dive into all things “Bodies” and was a continued exploration of the Jalada: 08 issue.

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