Freedom Fighter, Kenya, 1920-1957
Freedom Fighter, Trinidad & Tobago, 1941 – 2011
The name Dedan Kimathi means one thing to the world and another to me. It is a name that to the general population, conjures up a fearsome warrior, loathed and vilified by the British, celebrated and decorated by the people of an independent Kenya. He was the most recognized of the Mau Mau Freedom Fighters, the group that used military resistance to help bring about the independence of one more African state.
In our own post-independence struggle, for identity and equality, in Trinidad and Tobago, many foot-soldiers adopted names from Africa, for their tangible, literal meaning, or in honour of the leaders and historical figures from a distant motherland, who they most admired .
Brother Dedan Kimathi, of St. James, Trinidad and Tobago renamed himself after the fearless Mau Mau leader. Even before my mind travels to the dreadlocked soldier of East Africa, I see the open smile of Uncle Dedan, who remained uncompromising and committed to a pan-African vision for as long as I knew him. Many people enjoy the rhetoric of ‘revolution’, but few actually live the ideal of giving completely and wholly of themselves, for a cause greater than themselves, in even the most humble ways. Brother Kimathi had such love, loyalty and respect for those with whom he marched, went to prison, and worked with for decades, that to be one of their children, was to be like one of his as well. I cannot thank him enough for being one of those elders in my life who added to my sense of purpose and value in this world.
I was lucky enough to make an image of Uncle Dedan (Black Power’s Inheritance) earlier this year, just a few months before his sudden passing in October. He confronted the camera boldly, with a comfort and confidence that made him stand apart from many of my elder subjects. His anecdotes were rich and amusing. He shared his mementos with me – old prison stationary; collections of newspapers from 1970 and beyond; the primary school reader he kept from his boyhood days, from before Trinidad and Tobago had become an independent nation, featuring Tarzan-like tales and imagery, which he assured me, made him more determined to overturn a system, that instinctively felt wrong to him; a tiny, neatly folded, black and white clip, from a time when opposition to the construction of a massive dam in an African nation was a cause close to his heart.
For my portrait session, he switched out of a yellow t-shirt, and donned, atop his cutoff denim pants, a regal, maroon and gold dashiki. “My sister”, he told me, “you must take my picture like this”.