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Reflections

Fishers-of-Men: A Lamentation by Sam Opondo

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I

Listen
Our fishermen have always netted fish,
strange bodies,
and even stranger stories.
Stories of seductive mermaids and Mami Wata;
The terrifying Mokele-Mbembe,
and the Lochness Monster

With a Messiah
they caught all types of men,
and transformed the world to now say Amen
They also caught Nyamgondho’s wife…
the not-so-beautiful woman,
who transformed a not-so-wise fisherman’s life.
From the shores of the sea
they beheld the sign — Ichtus
and discovered the lyre of that great charmer;
That ‘fisher of men’– Orpheus.

These are just some of their fishy stories;
stories of water monsters and water deities
stories of sea beauties, and human frailties
stories that we cannot help but listen to
stories that help us listen to the silence within
Or the silenced ones without…
The silence that is yet-to-come

II

Look
As he rows his old Ssese canoe,
the fisherman tells a stranger water story
With quivering lips, and aching hips,
he tells of those who drowned on the land, and were buried in the water;
of those who tread the storied waters, and live in dread
of those who count the dead whose names remain unsaid

With hands trembling and hope crumbling,
he shows the baton that struck his daughter’s skull,
The same batons and bullets that turn fishermen into strange fishers-of-men
Look he says…when the fisherman dies, his baby cries,
when the baby dies, the mother cries…

III

Tremble

With trembling hands and a bleeding heart
He cast his net and hauled in a strange catch
A heavy bag that carries the truth of the land
In whose recesses, lie the excesses of the land
A bag denied the man with a sacred hand
The man and the girl, who still haunt the land

As he hauls a catch too heavy for his net to bear,
he mourns for souls that are too heavy to care
for souls that stare and dare to cheer
at the fisherman’s ire, and his perpetual fear

At the scared fishermen who remember how they cared,
for the floating dead of April 94, Rwanda
As they fished out men and omena from afar,
His scarred hands tremble and he mourns for the land
that cheers as it slowly turns into 1994 

IV

Mourn…

With misery and memories of Kagera’s deliveries,
He reflects with sorrow on today’s mysteries
In these familiar waters, he has fished and wished
In these strange waters, he has seen Fish-Men and bad omens
with a heavy heart , he beholds these heavy waters
that refuse to dissolve, the unresolved truths of the land

Clear waters that reflect the dictates of the land
bloodied waters when the state mutates and hate becomes our mandate
bloodied streets when killers of men, and counters of men,
turn fishermen, into fishers – of – men

So he mourns and protests and even meditates,
how the heavy hand turns ‘business men’ into killers of men
and fishermen into fishers-of-men
How it turns widowed daughters into witnesses by the shore
Who wait to see what the net will bring forth
For they know and hear every fisherman’s woes

He fishes and wishes …
That his dear lover and worried wife,
for all the uncertainty and sorrow of this life
will not tomorrow receive him as a fished-man
All bagged and netted by these part-time fishers-of-men

V

Follow

Follow Me and I will make you fishers-of-men
He is horrified by this familiar call
One that all fishermen clearly recall
And tremble for they know, that once they follow
once they learn how to catch and kill fish
once they like it…
it becomes easy to do it again
it becomes easy to follow…

He knows,
just like it became easy to catch fish
It will become easy to catch men
It becomes easy to kill fish … Once you follow;

He knows that once you see life as hollow
With or without skill, you will learn
With even a mere stone, or an Ass’s jawbone
to strip your catch to the bone

Once you follow;
You will catch the beautiful fish
You will stroke her rounded belly,
You will choke it by the gills;
scale it with a knife;
running all the way from its tail to its head
You will hang it on a hook;
weigh it, and then dry it

Once you follow;
You will smoke it;
salt it, and gut it;
First by sliding your knife into its anus
and then slowly through its abdomen, all the way to its head;

Once you follow;
With a sweating face, and a smile that lingers
you will part her abdomen with your bloody fingers;
You will pour out the roe…and call her a whore…
You will cut her family line,
as you pull out her filth-filled intestines

You…
yes you, with a smile
once you learn how to follow
you will rinse the empty cavity
and then…slit its sides;
and behold the rawness
and the freshness of its flesh
You will rub in the salt to keep its flesh fresh
And you will smile as it writhes in pain
For it is now almost ‘your time to eat’

He knows that once you follow
once you trivialize the human cry;
once you disregard the call of the fishers-of-men
who know one day they themselves might be fished-men
Then, ‘we’ all become potential fished-men

VI

Question…

He is tempted to follow but he tarries…

He listens as you dissect his fishy stories
He wishes you would not rub salt
into the fisherman’s bullet wounds

He hopes that you, once you apprehend his face,
you might want to pause and ask;
what kind of hunger , what kind of anger
makes one man turn his brother into a fisher-of-men?

What is it that makes the index finger point and accuse the distant stranger
Saying he is a danger?
What makes it wrap itself around the trigger and pull?
What is it that makes the parental hand cuddle one child and strangle another
Or wrap itself around the baton that dutifully crushes the baby’s skull

What sense of duty, what banal evil, what kind of upheaval,
makes it so easy for the long armed man to haul the body into a body-bag?
To cast the dead into the lake, to hide them…for ‘our’ sake
to try to dissolve them or to erase them

Question!

Then listen to the fisherman’s cry,he would prefer not to be
a fisher-of-men, a fished-man

VII

Doubt
As you listen to the fisherman’s story,
Will you put your fingers into their bullet wounds…all you who doubt?
Yes, he is a mere story-man, an everyman…
He probably does not know by name, those who they hauled in their nets
You doubt that these mere fishermen can tell one body apart from another
That these fish-men know the difference between the fish’s body and the human body

As he listens to your stories, he asks that you listen
otherwise …
All you who say that they are mere fishermen
Net-casters and stone throwers
You doubters who say;

Hao ni wala samaki
Ni watu wa hamaki
Hawataki Uthamaki
Ni machizi,
wako na hasira ya mkizi
Hao ni watu wa mawe na domo domo…

He asks that for one minute, you listen to yourselves!!
And then…imagine;
the horror of men and women who mourn when they haul in a human being
in nets meant for other beings
The horror of men and women who can tell apart the many species of fish;
kamongo and mumi,
omena and fulu,
ngege and mbuta
and now have to haul in a strange catch; One that tells them that they as fishermen,
They as fishers-of-men, are a lesser species of men

VII

Imagine…

The sorrow of this man
Of Men and women who know that this water body
is full of dead bodies. Full of spirits of the dead… Nyawawa
Spirits who are repelled by noise
Spirits who have gone silent
For they have now been joined by their wailing kin

Once you imagine, listen to those who mourn silently
Listen to those who refuse to be silenced

VIII

Listen Otherwise!

As he tells his stories,
Of killers of fish , who know the secrets of the killers of men
of children of the land, who, like Jonah of old,
are on the run…
are to be found not on the land, But in the belly of the seafaring beast
In the belly of the foreign body bag
Wet, submerged…hidden for three days

Listen…
He says to those who know the contents of their catch
Those who have inspected and counted
Those who have retorted
Those who have sorted and reported
Those who were sorted
Then into the water deported
And are now being hauled in like fish
Weighed like fish

He mourns, for he knows their ethical weight,
he mourns for the assumed weightlessness
Of those who have waited and searched
Of those who have wailed and sailed
Of those who have marched and been besmirched
and will soon tire of waiting

IX

Search

Listen and run, he says…

For those who have been told to wait might tire of waiting
Those who have been told to search
Might search elsewhere
They will not wait for the forensics
They might constitute another forum
and come up with a different form
A new forensic

Run…
For they no longer trust the truth-tellers
Or anyone who takes blood samples
Collects forms and brushes bullet cartridges
in order to tell them what they already know…
To tell them that they can’t determine what everybody knows
To tell them that the bodies in the bags drowned themselves
Just like they were told in 1990
that one could shoot themselves in the head;
pour acid on their body; and then set themselves ablaze…
in that order

He listens as people start telling their own truths
New and old prayers
Blood oaths instead of blood samples
They still brush the dust off their bullets
and dried blood off their blades

As they ask…
“How long will we listen as these experts and their fishy half-truths?”
“Why should we listen to experts of blood and numbers who tell us that some lives do not count? Or that
we should all be counted?”
Who tell us that some deaths do not count…who attempt to fix what, how many, and who,we are?
What are we to do with these lay eugenicists? These ‘techno-numerologists’? These demographic tyrants …who tell us that some people do not count?

X 

Believe

He no longer believes these expert truth-games
These experts who tell him that there is no need to know otherwise
That we cannot play other games. That we cannot live with others
…otherwise 

XI

Play!!

He remembers his childhood.
A different time and a different rhythm
He remembers the child he has just lost…
The pain makes him tremble.
He remembers a childhood game…
One he didn’t like much …
The song haunts him…he plays with the idea

Apart…Together… Across-apart-together

XII 

Wait

He has told you his story.
The fisherman’s story. The story of fishers-of-men

So we wait
We interrogate
Not all truths
Just the fishermen’s truth,
For our truth-games tell us that these fish-men are strange beings
That these strange fish-men have been weighed and found wanting
That these men who are not really men
do not count for much
That they are not worth listening to…

Are you afraid that if you listen otherwise you might learn something?
About yourself
About an other
About us
About…
Love
Just love

That when you listen to men turned into fishers-of-men
you might learn that we who are followers we are all potentially fish;
Bones, entrails, fresh and flesh.
We are all potentially gutted;
Hooked, salted,

We are all potentially predators and prey;
like Mbuta, that foreign big fish
we can create Darwin’s nightmares in our families,
In our familiar waters
That we, small fish, are a diverse ecosystem
Are not only part of this system, but can be apart from it

XIII

Immersion

The streets are burning, bloodied, so he immerses himself in the water.
Holds his breath…
A new baptism , he has done it all his life
But today the water is heavy, tepid, 37 degrees…painful

He invites you too, immerse yourself …
Not only in the water, but in the pain of the other,
Maybe the scales might fall off your eyes
So that we may see and listen to ourselves
That you may listen to these fishermen…
Amphibious men of land and water,
Men who know that we are all potentially fish;
healthy…delicious
beautiful…Rotten!!

Listen to these fish trappers
Men who have been trapped by other men
And are slowly being turned into man-trappers
Listen to men who know the difference between a hook and a net;
Not because they use it, but because it is wrapped around their neck
Men whose wounds warn us,
that when the net is cast far and wide
when the pond dries up, we will all be fish…
we will all be an accompaniment to bread
To ugali,
like nyama choma
But it will be someone else’s ‘turn to eat’

XIV

Swallow!

The lump in your throat. Feel what he feels.
Mourn for those who gloat
For those will not listen to the fisherman’s wish
Because he does not act as they wish
Swallow your pride…
If you will not listen to the fisherman, at least listen to the fish
They tired of the body bags, bloodied waters choking their body of water

Listen to the fished-man’s cry
For it is not our names that betray us
It our fishiness, our bodies
Our body bags
Our state
Our state of mind
That is what betrays us
That is what preys on us

XV

Attention

He is listening; looking; mourning; imagining; listening otherwise; swallowing his pride…he is trying to feel otherwise…trying to be otherwise.

But as he treads these bloody waters , it is made clear
that here,
some lives are no longer dear…
So he waits…

And hopes that…
As ‘we’ wait for the ‘next day of judgment’
As new batons hit new skulls
As more bullets pierce more flesh
As fish-men, those fish eating men run on the streets…

Do not only listen to the gunshots and business reports,
Listen to the fishermen’s lament,
Its specificity,
It can be your lament too
Maybe not today
Maybe not tomorrow…
Maybe it was yours yesterday
Maybe it will never be your cry
With empathy, listen nonetheless…

 

By Sam Opondo
Potential fished-man, potential fisherman, potential fisher-of-men

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Reflections

AND GOD RESTED ON THE SEVENTH DAY: Faith as a tense truce in an African reality

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AND GOD RESTED ON THE SEVENTH DAY: Faith as a tense truce in an African reality
Photo: rawpixel on Unsplash

When I was growing up in rural western Kenya in the mid-80s, my father, a Seventh Day Adventist (SDA), imposed Adventism upon us like a colonial identity card. He was an Adventist because his mother was an Adventist. That part of western Kenya was under intense competition between the Catholic, Anglican and Seventh Day Adventist churches. The Seventh Day set up a stronghold in central and south Nyanza regions with churches in every corner of the community. We were expected to carry this spiritual card around for many reasons. One was to inspire some sort of righteous pride, to show that we were better than others, mostly Catholics and non-believers, though Catholics were the other main Christian denomination in our community. We were being trained in denominational politics, that even though we were worshipping the same God as Catholics, we were different, more sanctified. Unlike them, our bodies were free from impurities like tobacco and alcohol. And that was not all. Coca-Cola and coffee were prohibited; soya was touted as the best alternative (but you could only find soya in shops in Nairobi).

My mother protested the Seventh Day Adventist church and its restrictions. She did not understand how eating cold food on Saturdays made anyone holier; she always prepared hot food. My father protested but grudgingly ate it all the same. Also, my mother had no personal vendetta against Coca-Cola. She drank it and made us drink too. My father frowned but couldn’t do much. He was always a minute too late, just as we were putting down empty bottles. In addition, my mother was ambivalent to religion; she was raised in a big traditional family where religion was a pastime and not a primary way of life. My father should have also protested a long time ago. My uncle too. Both are polygamists. Being polygamists, the church never accepted them the same way they accepted the church. As a teenager, I could partake in Holy Communion, but my grandfather, father and my uncle – grown men with much more social status than I – could not. They joined other men, mostly polygamous, in grudgingly walking out of the church during Holy Communion. In my mind, I didn’t think that polygamy, per se, made you a good or bad man. There were very good polygamous men – loving, caring and responsible. And there were bad monogamous men, who abused their families every day.

Deeply entrenched polygamy in our community was the elephant in the room in our local church. Most men seated in the pews were in polygamous families. Our church relentlessly depicted polygamy as barbaric and backward. I have always asked myself why my dad continued in this church that was seemingly subjecting him and fellow polygamous men to emotional abuse every Saturday. He later even embarked on a project to build a big church sanctuary closer to our home. Why would my father, and African people in general, join and support churches that deeply conflicted with their traditional way of life?

The Seventh Day church did not have formal method, or doctrine, to accommodate traditional practices of Africans they had come to teach about Jesus and salvation. This is was not a democracy where the heathen communities had a vote. The church’s intention was clear- convert as many as possible and to grow into a dominant, influential force. My father and polygamous men in the community accepted that the church was way more powerful than they, and that by joining it they could access some social power in a rapidly changing world. The church also accepted that these polygamous men were difficult and would not easily change their ways. The pastor seeming to have recognized this contentious issue, prayed fervently about everything but skirted around it.

For the first nineteen years of my life when I attended Seventh Day Adventist church, I never heard a pastor mention the word polygamy by name during sermons. They would preach strongly against adultery without mentioning polygamy. It was not lost to any person paying attention that lust and adultery, in the context of this Christian worldview, was the first step towards polygamy. Within this complex social set up, there was some sort of unofficial truce around polygamy- this truce would only be broken during Holy Communion when polygamous men would leave the church. Women must have viewed themselves as winners in this struggle between their men and the church. This was one of the few occasions when they would get a seat at the table and partake in a ceremony that their husbands could not. The men protested silently- most would skip church on days when Holy Communion would be served. My father would also often talk of David and his son Solomon as some of the famous men in the bible who married multiple wives. This contradiction in the bible must have been a source of consolation to my father and many men in my community.

In the 1980s and 1990s, during the early era of HIV/AIDS, there was a visible rise in televangelism and miracle healing, and a corresponding increase in the number and prominence of traditional healers and medicine men in our community. Public prayers were being made for all these throngs of young men and women dying of this incurable disease. Privately, African traditional medicine men and women were sought to appease whichever spirits had brought this curse to the people. Mainstream churches vigorously preached abstinence and riled against contraceptives, while in the dead of the night, when the church was officially asleep, traditional healers were brought into homes to prescribe final rites for the dead. Some of these rites included “corpse cleansing” through sexual intercourse with the dead in some communities.

This perpetual conflict between traditional spiritual practices and Christianity has always been a source of both personal and communal conflict. I remember when my uncle Ben was sick, strangers would visit ostensibly to “pray for him”. I knew these people were not Catholics or Seventh Day Adventists. I could tell they were traditional medicine men and women. Sometimes they would stay for days, and I would hear my grandmother telling her fellow women from the church that these medicine men were distant relations who were visiting. I could tell she appreciated the inadequacy of the Christian God in these difficult situations, but that she still struggled with that reality. I saw in her eyes the guilt of resorting to traditional medicine when she had lost faith in the ability of the Christian God to heal my uncle Ben. This was deep in rural Kenya, yet she did not dare be free in following the traditional practices of her people. I have come to learn that this personal struggle, both mine and hers, were a manifestation of years of calculated and successful emotional blackmail to the individual and community by missionaries.

One of the enduring impacts of Christianity in my life was the image of white savior. This image was thrust on my young mind through the powerful sermons on Saturday by our local pastor. The sermons always ended by him commanding us to “fall at the feet of the cross” and “obey”. Obedience would ensure blessings and prosperity. This image of falling at the image of a white male has always overwhelmed me. It struck me even more later when I was living in the United States, where white superiority is always hanging over black and brown people’s heads like a dark cloud.

I recently came from a trip to South East Asia and had a chance to experience a deity that wasn’t in the image of a white savior. I was struck by the images of massive statues of Buddha that resembled the local people. They were in all shades of brown, dark brown and sometimes black. Having lived in the USA for almost four years now, I was puzzled by this free colour continuum of Buddha statues. I made note of this and asked my hosts and friends who were surprised by my observation. They had never made similar observations. The differences, they said, came down to design and material used to make the statues of Buddha. There were no subliminal racial messages of superiority and inferiority in these statues. I apologized and let them know that I live in environment where race permeates every fabric of the society.

This experience introduced me to a unique reality that most Africans who are Christians have never had – the reality and the power of having a God who resembled the locals, who looked like the local rickshaw driver, beggar, teacher and doctor, hit me very hard. It brought back memories of the many times my father struggled to contort reasons to reassure me and my siblings that as much as the Christian God had very explicit Caucasian features, on the inside, he looked like us, Africans. And that before this God, all races were equal. I was always confused by this halfhearted assertion. I felt like we were always struggling too hard to impress the Christian God and we all fell short.

I have started thinking of how powerful and relatable it would be to have a God whose image members of my community would relate to. This would perhaps empower and inspire many people, including my son, whom I am not sure how to introduce religion to. How can I read him a Bible that has been used to control my people for generations without feeling a repulsive guilt? No, I cannot. I am rebelling against everything peddled with a white supremacist agenda. I have decided against that. That is why I struggled with thoughts of taking him to my grandmother’s church in Kenya. I decided against this church that refused to accept my father.

But then again, I have to ask myself, which is this African deity I am seeking? Moreover, where is this deity? Is it possible to reconstruct and empower all the traditional African deities destroyed by colonizers and missionaries? In addition, can our communities be empowered to find strength in their old ways of thinking?

This is the space and personal conflict that the entry of Christianity suspended me, and my community, into, and we are still grappling with it. Sometimes the presence of the local Seventh Day Adventist church in my community feels like an ever-present symbol of domination. But sometimes it looks like a space that offered my grandmother sanctuary and gave her meaning about life, and also gave women their own social status as Holy Communion-partaking believers. I want it to work for us, but I know I hold no vote, and I doubt my community has the power to reshaping practices and doctrines we feel do not align to the traditional values of my community. This faith has always been – take it or leave it. But I think we need something else.

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Reflections

THE DAYS OF SITUATION: Reflecting on the Reflections Series ‘Beyond The Numbers’

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THE DAYS OF SITUATION: Reflecting on the Reflections Series ‘Beyond The Numbers’

I was ten years old in 1996 when my parents separated. It seems to me that I had never really noticed them before it happened. Until that tumultuous December my parents were like the air around us – crucial to life, and you would notice when they shifted around, but otherwise somewhat unremarkable. I always thought my extended relatives were much more interesting than my parents – my aunt, who lived with us for a while, laughed loudly, spoke excitedly, and let us watch Indian movies late into the night when my mother was away working the housekeeping night shift at the New Stanley. My mother’s (step)father, my Guka, always brought us halua and kaimati every time he visited. We were fascinated bulging veins on his hand, wondering why they popped back up no matter how hard we tried to push them down.

And then, it happened. My father spoke a lot at this time, more than I had ever heard him speak, it seems, and he would say things like – “your mother is using you as a conduit to get to me.” At the end of his long speeches, I would go to my blue and red Oxford English Dictionary and look up the word conduit. And my mother became more quiet, I think, transfigured into glass that was dangerously on the verge of shattering at a moment’s notice. I was terrified at the thought of this. How does one pick up those kinds of shards?

But what none of us siblings could have known at the time – I am one of three – was that our family’s troubles were not ours alone, and that the intensity of our struggle to remain afloat was not entirely the fault of my mother and father. It was, (objectively?), the wrong time to get divorced – they were walking right into an economic blizzard, with the three of us in reluctant tow.

Kenya was in the midst of an economic recession, the fallout of implementation of the infamous Bretton Woods structural adjustment programs (SAPs), which led to a slash in government expenditure, especially on public servants’ salaries, administration, economic and social services. To make matters worse, the architects of the Goldenberg scandal had promptly drained an equivalent of 10 per cent of Kenya’s GDP from the Central Bank, just like that. Neglect and dilapidation were all around us, and in my ten-year-old mind, I connected the dots and concluded that this is actually what happens when your parents split up – the world goes to literal ruin. Garbage starts flowing in the streets. Potholes eat the road in front of your house.

Which is why I was not prepared for how painful this month’s Reflections series at The Elephant would be to read, edit and curate. They remind me, in the words of @tjjullu on Twitter, ‘ndalo situation’, days of situation, when the folks would say, “you know the situation…. We’re in a tight situation…”

Twenty-odd years later, state theft, poor fiscal management and an exorbitant debt appetite has ushered in a new season of austerity measures. Ndalo situation.

Beyond the Numbers

Read: Beyond the Numbers series

This Reflections series was intended to go ‘Beyond The Numbers’ of macro-economic policy and excavate the memories of those tough times, and connect that with what’s going on today. How did families cope? How did it affect social arrangements, like people having to live with relatives, or the stress that it put on marriages? How are millennials being affected by its iteration today – frustrating unemployment, and the unspoken angst of not being able to achieve dreams? How do we connect the brunt of the hustle to the dysfunction in national economics? How does society react to this culturally – chanelling frustration through music, sports, the arts and so on? And what are the untold stories of those traumas that were never discussed?

The series began with Lutivini Majanja’s extensive piece on how tea – its availability, quantity and quality – marked her family’s turbulent economic fortunes and domestic disruptions.

Then came Gloria Mari on the ‘extreme sport’ that is job searching today, where beyond skills, qualifications, work ethic and experience, it seems like you have to have guardian angels, good luck charms and even the occasional visit to the mganga to have hopes of finding a well-paying job.

We published Carey Baraka reflecting on how disconnected younger millennials are even from the memory or understanding of the 1990s ‘ndalo situation,’ and what that lack of memory does to a generation grappling with through similar challenges – but without a historical anchor to ground the struggle.

Filmmaker Amina Bint Mohamed explored the concerns and challenges of the so-called ‘middle class’ in a short documentary film, a demographic whose definition is contested and whose security is precarious.

There was Wanjeri Gakuru’s reflection on “flying out” as a way for families to cope with a depressed economy and diminished opportunities in the 1990s, but that is no longer an option today, with increasing xenophobia in the traditional ‘greener pastures’ – US, UK, Australia, and the like.

Darius Okolla detailed the decline of his hometown Kitale during those years, where the earth and rust seemed to swallow everything, and how the town never really recovered.

And Silas Nyanchwani’s devastating article on how he was making more money as a student a few years ago, than as an adult today with a family to support (and with a Masters degree from one of the most prestigious universities in the world), was almost too much to bear.

But could anything good come from all this distress? At a different time in my life, I would have written something clever about how economic turmoil allows innovation to emerge.

Like the way M-Pesa’s success may be partly because after the pervasive joblessness of the 1990s and early 2000s, there was a whole group of people who were willing to do the dreary work of being M-Pesa agents.

Much of the talk around M-Pesa has been why it worked so well in Kenya, and not so well in other places, and various reasons have been advanced – Kenya had a huge unbanked population, a lenient regulator, and a culture of sending money to relatives and friends.

But on the agent network, Safaricom had envisaged that agents would bolt on to already-existing businesses, like pharmacies, kiosks and convenience stores, which would then just do the M-Pesa transactions in a corner somewhere, the company’s corporate communications head told me in a past interview.

But the rapid rollout of the agent network was possible because of the very high informality in the Kenyan economy. In fact, the company was surprised at how there was a whole cohort of people willing to be M-Pesa agents as a stand-alone job, basically self-employed, sitting in a small stall, with no salary, benefits, or retirement package, earning a small percentage of every transaction.

Today, I can only make that argument intellectually, and even so, not completely sincerely. I am much more sensitive to the suffering that we tend to gloss over when we neatly tuck such losses into grand narratives of progress – that it all ‘worked out’ in the end, look at M-Pesa!

As philosopher Walter Benjamin argued, narratives of progress render history coherent and harmonious by resolving the traumatic dimensions of history, incorporating them into affirmative accounts that underwrite the positions of those in power.

It means that memory is always in danger of becoming a tool of the ruling classes, a situation that “threatens to murder the dead twice, to erase and eliminate the dissonant quality of past suffering, injustice, struggle and loss.”

Mine is a melancholic hope today, a “hope draped in black” in the words of writer Joseph Winters. It is the kind of hope that refuses to peddle in fantasies of a coherent, harmonious world unscathed by painful events, conditions and memories, in the name of the gospel of innovation. Sometimes suffering produces innovation. But it always produces pain, and the cheerful silver linings obscure this.

This series is our attempt, in the words of author Ralph Ellison, “to keep the painful details and episodes of a brutal experience alive in one’s aching consciousness, to finger its jagged grain…in the hope that we might transcend it, not by the consolation of philosophy but by squeezing from it a near-tragic, near-comic lyricism.”

Like Winters, I see melancholy gesturing towards a better, more promising hope, which must entail contemplation, remembrance, and critical encounter with vulnerability, cruelty, and death, rather than endeavours to resolve or deflect them through reassuring images of progress.

It is a blues sensibility, “unhopeful but not hopeless”, offering no solutions, only a way of responding to, working through, and coping with painful incongruities.

Perhaps the next M-Pesa will come out of all this. Perhaps not. But we at The Elephant will be a witness to ndalo situation.

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Reflections

EARTH AND RUST: The decline of a Kenyan town

Once in late 1996, a neighbour’s clothes were stolen from the hanging line when she went to work, a theft that fascinated the neighborhood to no end. Who would do such a thing? Why – for heaven’s sake? Our version of burglary was the smell of despondency with a tinge of crude survival, pain and hunger pangs.  By DARIUS OKOLLA

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EARTH AND RUST: The decline of a Kenyan town
Photo: Laini-Moja, Kitale

I grew up in Kitale. The story of the deterioration of my hometown in the 1990s mirrored the tumultuous decline of just about every factory-dependent town in the country; it was subtle, gradual, almost imperceptible, and forever disguised as the typical wear and tear of urban spaces – but it was more than that. It was thievery, corruption, and disenfranchisement, shoving it down the path of visible decline; a depreciative spectacle masked by rural docility and the often-accepted rural poverty.

First came the increasing cases of theft. These were often acts of burglary that surprised us in their desperation as much as they exasperated the victims by their sheer banality. We had an outhouse in our compound measuring about 8 feet by 11 feet, where we stored farm equipment, tree seedlings, charcoal sacks – pretty much everything that was bulky and intended for outdoor use. At first the break-ins at this outhouse were infrequent, then they happened about once every few months.

The stories from neighborhood increased. In nearly all the incidences there were no guns used, often no attacks, not even violent break-ins – just missing farm tools, stolen livestock, and pilfered homes when the owners had briefly travelled out of town. Once in late 1996, a neighbour’s clothes were stolen from the hanging line when she went to work, a theft that fascinated the neighborhood to no end. Who would do such a thing? Why – for heaven’s sake? Then there were the stories of food stolen alongside a burning charcoal jiko as someone cooked outside the house, a story told with awkward hilarity.

John Kirimaiti, Wanugu, Wacucu and the elite cadre of fascinating gun-toting gangsters were the stuff of distant cities told with near-legend flair that we knew we’d never have to worry about. Our version of burglary was the smell of despondency with a tinge of crude survival, pain and hunger pangs, which drove able-bodied humans to steal anything they deemed to be of market value.

When we first moved to Kitale in the early 1990s we lived at Section Five, a row of patterned townhouses with hedged compounds of cypress, flowers, worldliness and tranquility. Nearby was Matano, consisting of dozens of two storied homes with large balconies, cream walls and wooden doors named in alphabetical order. Bondeni, where we would go ride the swings at the children’s playground, was not far either.

My folks were somewhat too extraverted for the austere life of hedged picket fences in that neighborhood, so we moved to Section 21, a well tarmacked, more concrete-y neighborhood lying to the west of the town. The streetlights worked, the town matatus ran the transit service with an efficiency that we, for the longest time, took for granted. We moved again just when private landowners started buying property in Section 21 and setting up unplanned developments.

As Section 21 began to sprawl, it is perhaps not a coincidence that the locals transliterated its name to Tuwani (two-one-i), betraying its deterioration, imbuing it with a villagized name, vibe and life.

Our next neighborhood, Mitume, for the better part of the 1990s was a large piece of land with few houses and lot of grassy fields. Mitume (Kiswahili for apostles) a name likely derived from Christ The King Catholic church parish nearby, was far different from the organized suburb life of Section 21, though it offered a stronger sense of community. Mitume wasn’t spared either as slowly, random developments popped up on what was once sprawling grassy fields.

Chipped paint, dirt, and dilapidation slowly ravaged the children play area at the swings at Bondeni estate that we had left behind. The swings grew rusty, then bare-boned and dangerous for kids to play on. Then they got vandalized and whatever remained of them was run into the ground by neglect, swallowed by the earth and rust. Beside it, where dusty paths met collapsing hedges, garbage strewed onto the road from what were once neat, well-ordered homes.

I attended a public school and so did most of our neighbors, and most of our parents were either in the informal sector or worked as civil servants. It’s still intriguing how the elders seemed so unaware of just how vulnerable they were to downward mobility given their faithfulness in following every single news item on the radio. How come they didn’t see what was coming?

Baba Silas, my friend’s dad worked the Kenya Cooperative Creameries (KCC) and so did most of my friend’s dads who worked in various parastatals, like Baba Wycliffe, Baba Jaredi and on and on. Somehow our parents’ names were hallowed, so they were just ‘Baba nani’ and ‘Mama nani’. Baba Silas – I never got to know his name – carried himself with an air of officiousness, always in a leather jacket, with a slow walk; his neck seemed stiff as he walked, with a slight swagger and a polythene bag at hand. He always carried a polythene bag, I’m not sure why.

He’d lose his job during retrenchment as the parastatals got downsized and then collapsed in the mid-1990s. But I didn’t see him for a while, as we moved from Mitume estate to Lessos, where our parents had bought some land. Lessos estate is named after the Lessos farm in Eldoret, given that the Kalenjin owners who gave the place its name had moved to Kitale from Eldoret.

Set on a ridge overlooking a forest, you could always see the factories in Section 6 and Section 19 on the opposite ridge about four kilometres away, across from Lessos forest in the valley below.

From Lessos, the few remaining factories including a leather tanning factory, Kenya Seed, Western Seed and a dozen other factories let out a low dull hum that on a quiet afternoon reached all the way to our home. Slowly by slowly, the hum grew fainter as the firms collapsed until the sound was no more. But quickly, the silence as it was quickly replaced by the cacophony of human activity, especially a construction boom that hit the estate in the 2000s. The town’s population was rising, properties were becoming smaller and more sub-divided, and unplanned developments were everywhere.

As the hum of factories faded to whimpers, informal businesses in the neighborhoods rose sharply as retrenched workers desperately tried their hands in business, trying to secure an income for their families. Most of them collapsed within months or a few years after inception.

The 1997 elections carried with it a strange sense of camaraderie and hope in the town, partly because multi-party politics had expanded the democratic space and increased a sense of political freedom. Men (and they were mostly men) stood atop old Peugeots and Mazdas, flashing two-finger salutes and yelling in the air, drowning the silent scream of a town choking under the stranglehold of Structural Adjustment Programs.

In 1998 my mum sent me to call over a relative who lived about 40 kilometers away for a job opportunity at a local company – this was before cellphones were a thing. I must have been 10 years old. This relative had already unsuccessfully applied for the job dozens of times. I arrived late in the evening as he worked on his shamba, weeding his sukuma wiki and cassava.

‘‘Hii kazi bwana nimeapply, fare nimetumia mingi na mimi nimechoka, wacha tu nilime.’ (I’ve applied for this job many times and used so much fare; I’m tired, let me just farm). I was taken aback by the vulnerability on display, his frustration breaking through into an involuntary rant to a 10-year-old.

This time though, he got the three-month gig, which still only paid peanuts and barely provided him with meaningful cash. He’d leave for Kisumu afterwards, then Eldoret, then Nairobi and back to Kitale then Eldoret again.

I would run into Baba Silas in the late 1990s, a few years after he’d been fired from KCC. He looked haggard, tired, his trouser torn at the knees. He was working at a brick-making factory, and I ran into him taking a break under a makeshift grass thatched shade, eating the mjengo githeri at lunch time. His sagged chin reflected dignity under assault, he looked shaken to see me, and a bit sad.

Then came the early 2000s and the town broke into a palpable air of difficult-to-justify yet hard-to-dismiss optimism. When Narc luminaries came to Kitale stadium for what would be their only visit to the town before the 2002 elections, I sneaked from home to go watch the revolution happen. I was 13 years old.

Hii movement bwana! It will last for at least 30 years,” my relative would tell me matter-of-factly after the momentous event. His life certainly changed. He landed a better paying gig, then got married. His wedding, albeit later in life than was expected, reflected his changing fortunes, much more than anything. We often take for granted how the frequency of social functions such as weddings, birthday parties, cookouts, and get-togethers reflect a rising society.

He’d secure better fortunes across the country, marry, settle down, buy a plot of land, build his home and essentially hit all the markers of adulthood that had eluded him for most of his life, all in a span of eight years in the 2000s.

Unfortunately for Kitale, the town never got to deftly negotiate with the colonial state in ways that could secure it enough resources to help it fully recover. It didn’t help that the town’s patriarch, Kijana Wamalwa, would pass away a few months into the Narc wave.

Still Kitale continued to grow, the population growing exponentially in the 2000s. During the 2007 post-election violence, given its cosmopolitan makeup, Kitale provided a somewhat safe harbor for those kicked out of their homes in the outlying regions. The population soared but the infrastructure and the vitality of its urban life didn’t. I see all that every time I go home.

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