Felistas Waguthi’s mirth is unmistakable: She laughs easily and has lot of hilarious stories galore. When she was young, she must have been stunningly beautiful: chocolate-dark skinned, she is tall and has an athlete’s body. At 75 years and living in Kirimukuyu location in Tumu Tumu sub-location in Mathira constituency, Nyeri County, 140km north of Nairobi city, she has seen it all – but one thing that has been constant – her life has been riven with staggering poverty.
I found her peeling some pint-sized potatoes that looked like marble balls. “The harvest was poor, there wasn’t enough rains,” Felistas told me, in her mud-house that had dangerously hanging soot in the “sitting room”. She cooks, entertains and sleeps in the oblong shaped mud house. I have experienced and lived poverty, but Felistas’s searing poverty was mind numbing in a county celebrated as agriculturally fertile and rich. “We are looking to being given relief maize by the (national) government,” said Felistas. “Many people in my locale do not have enough food.”
On my way to visit her, I had passed through Murang’a County using Kenol-Saba Saba-Murang’a road. I noticed the stunted maize crop that had obviously failed because of the inadequate rains. Stopping in Murang’a town to refill, I engaged some local residents, who told me Murang’a County was already receiving relief maize. I arrived in Kirimukuyu in time to find Felistas with a 2kg packet of unga (maize flour) and a kilo of Basmati rice. “There is a young man here in my village, I knew his father in the 1960s, he is been sending me some foodstuff, especially rice and maize flour – like he has done today,” said the granny.
“All our leaders are capricious and greedy,” ventured the old lady. “They do not care for anything or anyone. They are just interested in self-aggrandizement. They have contributed to this poverty that abounds in this area.” To illustrate her point, she digressed and told me the story of her elder brother. “My elder brother – now deceased had been born disabled, so as the last born, I spent many years looking after him. In his last five years of his life, he suffered greatly, and couldn’t leave the house. ‘Isn’t there something like a national fund for the disabled?’ she posed aloud. There is not an office in Nyeri I didn’t enter. I wanted some help from our elected leaders and government for my brother. When I tell you all these leaders – from the top to the lowest – are only interested in grabbing everything for themselves, believe me. “It is the same young man who frequently sends me flour and rice my way that helped me in those five years that my brother was sick.”
Felistas told me she used to work for an English master in Nairobi in 1965, two years after the country gained independence. “My white boss treated me better than any of our leaders have ever treated us,” said a nostalgic Felistas. “I gave up on our leaders a long time ago: They are masters of deceit and subterfuge. My life belongs to the Lord, who sustains me and who has kept me going all through these hard times. If I had relied on the leaders, do you think I would be alive today?” She was not asking me, she wanted me to know the contempt with which she held the politicians, who every cycle of five years, came to lie to her, on how they were going to improve her life.
Barefooted, Felistas’s feet told the story of a resilient woman who had faced the vagaries of life stoically. The feet had trekked many kilometres in search of food for her children in yester years and, they were still doing the same for her grandchildren, who were playing outside her mud structure.
“Mathira ya githomo”. The educated Mathira. That was how Mathira, her constituency was once referred to. In the days gone by, Mathira produced some of the best and most educated Nyerians. But today, it has sunk to the bottom of the ladder. “Illiteracy, poverty and unemployment are the order of the day,” said James Karani, my boda boda ride when I was in Karatina. “Do not forget that Mathira is where competing politicians brag on how they can boil a pot of githeri with KSh1000 notes, until it’s cooked.”
Karani took me to Wariruta trading centre, an outpost on the Karatina-Nyeri Road. We met young men who were chewing muguka – a bitter-sweet stimulant of the miraa species, whose leaves chewed long enough makes you feel high. Others were playing pool, still others idled around. “It is at Wariruta that you will find all manner of drugs,” Karani reported to me. “Cocaine, heroine, marijuana, you name it. I grew up in Wariruta and went to school with many of these guys, so we interact, but I am puzzled by how the drugs find their way here.”
Karani told me the young men and women had refused to take up farming. “Look at the farms, there isn’t anything growing or any animal movement. Farming takes too long, the young people do not have the patience for the crops to grow up, when there is betting and hustling. In idiomatic English, a hustler is a prostitute. So, drunkenness among the youth of the Wariruta, has become the norm. “The youth have become fatalistic and hopelessness and restlessness has become their way of life,” said Karani. “They no longer believe in the country’s politics or politicians. When Uhuru came to Karatina town to campaign for the August 8, 2017 general elections, the youth yelled and shouted at him when he asked the Mathira people to vote for the Jubilee six-piece-suit. ‘We are farmers, we don’t wear suits’ replied the youth. It was their way of telling him, they were tired of five-year-cycle of politics that had failed to improve their lot.”
On my way back to Nairobi, I wanted to sample the Sagana town nightlife. So, I used the Nyeri-Sagana highway. Sagana is at the “Makutano” junction of Kagio-Kutus-Kerugoya road that took you into the heartland of Kirinyaga County and the Nyeri-Sagana highway. I saw, in the one street town, twilight girls, peddling their wares to the truckers who stop at Sagana, on their way to Meru, Isiolo, Marsabit, Moyale and Mandera. I remembered what Karani in Karatina had told me: many of the youth in Central Kenya have chosen the “hustler life”, which though is replete with avoidable risks, they opted for it nonetheless, because the returns are immediate and rewarding, as opposed to waiting for the rain-fed crops to sprout and be sold in the markets for peanuts.
From my tribe, I take nothing
I drive a taxi in Nairobi. This has led me to see the world from behind the wheel, the one position I have occupied for close to ten years now. My wealth of information comes from endless interactions, observations and experiences in the driver’s seat. In our world, we are advised to see no evil and hear no evil. This is good for business.
Communication is the key to dealing with clients and respect goes a long way. Like the clothes we put on our backs, people are different and their preferences vary. To win clients over, you need to be neutral like Switzerland, by simply flowing with whatever topics they are comfortable with. The secret is to let them start the conversation. There are those self-absorbent individuals who love to talk about their career goals and achievements. Some are all about their families; business ventures while others are professors of politics. They are all my clients.
In August 2017, a lady client called Julie* hopped into my car. She was in the company of a man she would later introduce as her husband. I was glad to have met him in person given that she was always talking about her husband and kids. We got talking, well, he talked, I just assumed my usual position of the listener, occasionally interjecting with a line or two, to let him know we were still on the same page. Many years of experience in the taxi industry has taught me which subject areas to stay clear of when in conversations with my clients. It lessens the awkwardness that creeps in sometimes which if unchecked inadvertently might stir bad blood and somehow compromise the relationship and the business. Politics tops the list. I find it quite an unhealthy subject to dwell on as it does more harm than good.
Her husband was called Mr Ongwae* and he became adamant demanding to know my views regarding the nullification of Jubilee’s victory in the just concluded election! I could easily tell which side of the political divide, he was batting from and his assumption on my inclination as well. So I told him, that I did not vote because I did not have a preferred candidate of choice for the big office. I went as far as showing him my unstained fingers just to prove my point. Mr. Ongwae had a hard time believing me and let his bias show saying, “You must have been a thuraku movement adherent, you look like one!”
The ethnic stereotyping cut to my core as I listened to him carry his argument in an abrasive fashion. Most of the generalisations held by Kenyans about other Kenyans are often just that, generalisations. Like many others, the man was simply tribal profiling and frankly speaking, I was tired of defending my position as a Kikuyu. I am just as entitled to be and do whatever I feel like so long as it is within the confines of the law including running for president. His attempts to draw me into an argument however failed, as I remained tactical with my answers till we got to his hotel destination and breathed a sigh of relief once he stepped out of my taxi.
A few weeks later, Julie would call me one Wednesday morning to request a ride to Jogoo House on Harambee Avenue in Nairobi where she works as a government clerk. She looked sad and I wanted to ask her about it but professional decorum demanded I mind my own business. However, I should not have worried. She broke down crying in my back seat soon after, forcing me to park by the roadside to attend to her. Just so we are clear, I am not cut out for some things, and crying women is one of those things. I could feel a golf ball lodged in my throat not sure how to go about comforting my distressed passenger! When the sobs subsided, she narrated a sad tale, how days after the taxi ride with her husband; they had travelled back home to Nyamira County. The next morning her husband woke up at 4am, in a foul mood and told her to pack her belongings, including their three kids and leave his compound immediately! Julie hails from Ngubu in Meru county and she had made a home and life for herself and family far from her birth place in Nyamira.
“I knew my political affiliation bothered him a lot, but it never occurred to me that his paranoia could go this far!” She reasoned.
“I mean who disowns his own flesh and blood in the name of politics, people that don’t even know you exist, who? And, what does it mean when he tells me to “go back to my people? Which people?”
I could taste the bitterness in her voice. What kind of father could be this callous to his flesh and blood, I wondered but I did not voice my thoughts. I sought to understand, if there were any underlying factors that might have led to his cause of action and she replied reassuringly, “Our marriage has stood for nine years and we have three children, two girls and a boy. Apart from the normal ups and down that happen in every marriage, I cannot complain at all!” The only thing about her husband, she said, was that he tends to be overly dramatic when it comes to politics. You either align yourself with him and his party of choice or face his wrath. Politics had won and torn a family apart.
So on the said morning the man had rallied his immediate relatives and kicked out his wife accusing her of “betrayal”. Her younger sister who was visiting at the time was also caught up in the eviction and found herself walking down a dusty road with a crying toddler in her arms as the other two children followed closely behind still wearing their night clothes also crying. Julie had fallen behind in a faceoff with the crowd of villagers demanding to know what her fault was! But when she noticed how futile her attempts at reason were and how charged her in-laws were, she gave in and left broken-hearted. At the break of dawn, the same crowd descended on her farm and wreaked havoc by chopping down her bananas and sugarcane plantation! I listened intently, watching her fiddle with her fingers, sobbing softly. “And have you talked to him ever since?” I enquired. “No, he isn’t what you’d call a reasonable person “. I admired her show of dignity even in frustration. The children asking after their father bothered her a great deal. What was she supposed to tell them, the truth? What exactly do you tell your children when faced by such a situation?
Growing up in Umoja, Eastlands back in the 90’s, the world was nothing but a giant playground. I was free and happy without a care in the world. Back then, neither politics nor tribe meant jerk. We knew no boundaries right from our home in Umoja to Kayole, Dandora, Kariobangi and Huruma now famed for all sorts of societal ills; robbery, murders and rape not to say the least. To date, I still feel at home whenever I find myself in the Eastlands part of Nairobi. I suppose my perceptions of childhood were shaped by my personal experience of freedom and happiness without any excesses. Julie’s children were growing up with rigid boundaries and walls.
During the same August election period, I had another client experiencing some dental problems. A toothache she had ignored for a while had persisted prompting a visit to hospital. The clinic we went to usually takes in a maximum of 6 patients in a day. Extras are booked for another appointment. Upon arrival, we were told that only one slot was remaining yet there were two patients, my client, Beryl* and a middle-aged woman called Vivian*. The two girls behind the desk were both Nyamburas as their nametags suggested. They asked for IDs and Beryl dished hers first. They both looked at it; Beryl Achieng Owada, then Vivian’s; Vivian Waceke Kamau. As if by means of telepathic signalling they simultaneously raised their eyes and gave Beryl one long stare before handing the ID back telling her the slot had just been filled.
The disgust on their faces was unexpected and so when they began giggling and gossiping in Kikuyu I reacted demanding to know what had just happened a second earlier. “Tutirenawirawanyamuciaruguru, niathieagathondekerwokundukungi no tiguku” (We have no business with Western creatures, tell her to go seek for help elsewhere but not here). Ordinarily, I would have gone ape giving them a piece of my mind but strangely I found myself speechless, literally, as I watched them walk the lady into an empty room behind the blinds that partitioned the room and my eyes actually welling up. This was a new low. The helplessness of us Kenyans! I tried to engage a man that stood by my side about the girls’ misconduct and one look from him was enough to put me in my place.
“Nikiiuregianamaundu ma ta gukonii wee?” (Why bother yourself with matters that do not concern you?) And he was talking about Beryl.
The coldness in the clinic was unbearable. Beryl wanted to know what was happening but I just took her by the hand, led her back to the car and drove out of the compound mad as hell to another clinic close by. She demanded to know what had transpired, so to cushion her from the pain of it all, I lied and told her that the lady had an earlier appointment and had come back for surgery. Luckily, the nurse at the second clinic, a Wanjiku from Gatundu North was kind and had the sense not to profile her clients by their ethnic extraction. She was treated and we soon left the premise but the reception we had gotten earlier stuck with me. To date, I still feel angry about it.
I have seen many similar episodes of tribal prejudice in my line of work but the intensity of hate in 2017 left me feeling lost with no one to turn to for intervention. I am just as much a Kenyan as the next guy is, and I cannot understand how easily political affiliations can drive us apart. The politicians we purport to stand with could not care any less about our welfare. I speak from experience as a man who was part of a team that spearheaded a political agenda for an ex-taxi driver in the hope that he would come through for us once he got into office. Well, the good news is, we fought long and hard and he got the seat, finally, but the bad news is that he became a politician. The promises he had made remained unfulfilled. It has been almost five years since he got the seat.
In my opinion, I think it behoves us to ask ourselves the question “Where did we go wrong?” When I look around and see people still trying to pick their lives months down the line after the traumas of the 2017 elections, I feel nothing but bitterness for a political system that turns the masses against each other to benefit a few elites. We live in a country where a man can kick out his family because of politics. A patient can be denied treatment because of politics. Or in my case, a taxi driver harassed by a policeman who threats to confiscate my driver’s license after reading my last name and demands that “we first relinquish power before he can hand it back” all because of politics.
Compromise is the essence of diplomacy. Not violence. We cannot just “accept things the way they are and move on” Things can change for the better but that will only happen when we do away with this open hatred we harbour against fellow Kenyans. Though we may claim we are “proud to be Kenyan” the reality behind the sentiment is starkly different. Truth is, we are a broken Nation, battered and scared, to the soul.
Tribal profiling can no longer be a fringe issue, to be discussed in hushed tones in the privacy of our bedrooms but rather a malignant national disease that requires serious attention from all Kenyans. We have to be accountable not only for our actions as individuals but also for the complicity of our silence in the face of injustice against fellow citizens.
Losing My Identity in A State Of Angst
Who am I? Am I “Catholic”? Am I “Christian”? Am I Kikuyu? Or am I “Kenyan”? Or am I all of them at once? Or the other way around?
Am I “African”? Or am I “Bantu”? Or does it depend on time of day? On place? Or on who’s asking? What is an African?
Who are you? Somali? Kenyan-Somali? Somalian-Somali? Somaliland-Somali? Cushite? Who decides?
Luo? Ugandan? Ugandan-Luo? Kenyan-Luo? Tanzanian-Luo? Nilote? Who decides?
Who are we? Blacks? Africans? Kenyans? Somalis? Arabs? African-Arabs? Who decides?
Who are they? British? Kenyan-British? Foreigners? Kikuyu? Immigrants? JoLuo? French? Italian? Ndorobo? Europeans? Whites? Who decides?
What should we be? Can we decide? Does it matter?
What makes us connect? What connects us?
Nelson Mandela after a 27 year prison stint for his political beliefs under a racist apartheid Afrikaans regime, said that an Afrikaans, a man from the tribe that was for a long time the existential enemy of his own, is at a personal level the best friend one can have, referring to his behind-bars friendship to Christo Brand. What did he mean? Could an Afrikaans really ever truly be a friend to a black native? Can an imperialist and imperial subject really be friends? A slave owner and a slave? In what context? Who decides?
Geography does not seem to mean anything relative to who we are or how we express ourselves or relate. I was once watching the Discovery Channel and was surprised to see a charcoal dark girl from a nomadic tribe of Southern Sudan smile and blush, just like any of the urban girls of Nairobi that I knew. Why did I expect her to be different? What had created such distance? Does the difference in what makes us laugh make us different? Wasn’t she from a different socio-cultural environment, a different geography, a distant place? If she was a girl like any other, did that mean all women were exactly the same?
If this be the case, aren’t we more than just the same species? Might we all be one family? Might the story of creation be true? If true why did it not seem to affect its purveyors. Being Catholic does not allow one to either own property or live in the Vatican City, while it allows the Catholic church to own vast real estate in all its strongest adherents homelands, Africa and South America?
When I step back, it seems violence, expropriation and colonialism of peoples lands from Palestine, Eastward and Southward was “legitimate” and tolerable. While violence against the “others” was completely “immoral”, even when it was just to protect life and honour, let alone property. For centuries of expropriation, slavery and genocide from Latin America through Africa to Asia, “Forgive and Forget” even as it continues; for pogroms and concentration camps elsewhere, reparations and “Never forget” are never enough, even as the victims of pogrom now become the leading expropriators and genocidaires. Are we one family or not? Who decides?
A long time ago, straight out of High School and into the world, amongst my friends was a French Agronomist. He was called John because few either could pronounce Jean or cared to make the effort to. One day in a quick passing conversation with an acquaintance, in John’s presence, my acquaintance asked if my French friend John was Italian. Given the rush we were in, I answered yes to end the conversation thinking it of little consequence.
Faux pas! Bouleversant!
Till that point I had assumed all that mattered was whether you were “Black” or “White”, especially to White people. And I was not entirely wrong, Malcolm X had stumbled upon this simple truth on 15th February 1965 when he was barred from entering France for his activities in America, explaining:
“There’s a worldwide revolution going on. And it’s in two phases.
Number one, what is it revolting against? The power structure. The American power structure? No. The French power structure? No. The English power structure? No. Then what power structure? An international Western power structure. An international power structure consisting of American interests, French interests, English interests, Belgian interests, European interests. These countries that formerly colonized the dark man formed into a giant international combine. A structure, a house that has ruled the world up until now. And in recent times there has been a revolution taking place in Asia and in Africa, whacking away at the strength or at the foundation of the power structure.”
[Malcolm X, 15th February 1965]
Well, now I learnt apparently not. Here and now I was about to learn that Whiteness was only united in the rape, pillage and plunder of native peoples, lands and resources. So much so, even the presumably non-negotiable characteristic requirement of skin pigmentation can be conveniently suspended by the elites amongst their ranks when they want to scale up their wars against the weaker peoples of the world. As we saw with US President Barrack Hussein Obama this century and his predecessor Rome’s first Black Emperor Lucius Septimius Severus in the dusk of the 2nd Century and dawn of the 3rd Century.
Outside of their imperialist agenda, Whites had tribes! These tribes squabbled in a “World War” (“World” as they consider themselves the “World”) scale and strangely got terribly upset if you got their tribes wrong.
In retaliation, John called me “you Jaluo” and stomped off in a huff just like they do in the movies. Having worked in the Central Highlands, the Kikuyu tribe’s ancestral homeland, he had come to learn of my tribe of birth fierce post-colonial political rivalry with the JoLuo, and all the contempt and bile that accompanies such relationships. Knowing I was of Kikuyu ethnic heritage he naturally assumed this would offend me. Being an Agronomist he would be forgiven. As an engineer he would not understand the urban-rural socio-dynamics. Simply put, the corrosive nature of cities and urban upbringing on cultural identity in the 3rd world. The city in Africa isn’t emergent, it is a foreign body imposed upon the land, and for this reason it remains a sort of “No tribe’s land” in the “No man’s land” sense. You therefore acquire friends from everywhere, you live anywhere and interact with everyone as you have neither tribe, nor geography, nor class to limit you. So the tribal diatribe turned out to be a dud when I responded with a befuddled, “O. K.”.
But what was wrong with him being “Italian”? What was wrong with me being “JaLuo”? Who decides?
Where’s the border?
One weekend without anything better to do John and I decided to drive south from Nairobi. It is a beautiful country. We had a four wheel drive and it had to earn it’s keep. We followed the compass as the crow flies, rolling over the Salt Lake Magadi, cutting over flat arid lands through Shompole to “the border”.
The border? I looked at the map and compass, the coordinates indicated we were right on “the border”, but when I looked up from the map there was nothing but semi-arid terrain. Not a man-made object or human being as far as the eye could see, except the Toyota four-wheel drive we came in.
I was nineteen, untraveled and unexposed.
I asked John, “Where’s the border?”
He looked at me puzzled and said, “We are standing on it”.
“But there’s nothing here…”, I persisted,
“What were you expecting?” he asked.
“Well…some kind of fence or something…where this bold line on the map runs.”
He laughed, and I understood, asking a rhetorical question,
“Does that mean this border exists only in my mind?” in all our minds? I thought…
I suddenly remembered a book I had stumbled upon when I was sixteen that had created a question in my mind. It was titled “Building Nation-States”, I could not remember who the publisher was but it had completely formatted and rebooted a section of my mind.
“Nation-States are built!”
I did not know what to think, the ramifications were more than my mind could process. Making no sense of what was written within, I closed it and to my great chagrin would never find it again, however hard I looked. But from then on the question was blazoned across my mind like a billboard. The question followed me everywhere I went from then on, “Nation-States are built?” Was my entire identity artificial? Who was I? Really? Who decides?
So what am I?
Kenyan? Well, definitely not! If by legal definition “Kenya” is a property…
The Kenya Gazette Supplement No. 93 of 7th December 1960 states the term “Kenya” means, the colony and Protectorate of Kenya Crown Land.
…being Kenyan would make me chattel, property of the “Crown”. Nope, not Kenyan.
African? I can’t be African because it is the name of a landmass connected to another. I mean, if asteroid 3200 Phaethon hit the earth causing the continent to submerge under a tsunami but I made it to the Ark, would it submerge with my identity? I think not. Or in that case I am Gondwanaland-ian. Or who would I be? Given the anchor of my identity no longer existed? Or would we anchor our identity in oceans? I am from the Indian Ocean or the Atlantic? Who would I have been on Pangaea before the fracture of the supercontinent?
I can’t be “Black” because I am neither “Medium-height” nor “Knock-kneed”. If my anthropomorphic features define my identity then any feature is as valid as the other. I weigh 82 kgs. If any member of any group where adult men are on average measure less than 150 cm (4 feet 11 inches) tall is referred to as “pygmy” irrespective of continental domicile, colour, culture, then let anthropologists conjure a tribal name for men of 82 kgs and ascribe me to that tribe. For all I care I was from the Middleweight tribe when I was a bachelor, lost my membership and slid into the Cruiserweight tribe after I married. Strangely, American actor Danny Davito standing at 4 foot 10 inches is never referred to as a pygmy? It seems if one is “White” they are exempted from inclusion in any and all social groups that fall at the bottom of the imperialist social structure, for which skin colour is primary criterion. Who decides?
I am most definitely not Kikuyu. Being Kikuyu would make me not JaLuo, not Somali, not French, not Irish, not Palestinian, all of a sudden all the rest of humanity would become “those” or “others”, not “we” and I cannot bare such a crevice. It would suddenly be legitimate for their children to be less important than mine, their existence inconsequential to me, it would be unbearable. For then it would be fine for me to allow my son to be sent to kill their sons. Then, the rape of Samburu girls by British soldiers, Somali girls by AMISOM soldiers, Iraqi girls by American soldiers, Palestinian boys by Zionist soldiers on and on…would all not be my concern, ever, until it was Kikuyu girls. I cannot be of any nation whose bond is based on a material characteristic, be it genetic, geographic or any such combination because, as Daniel Berrigan famously wrote “Every Nation-State tends towards the imperial – that is the point”, and that cannot ever be my point. So, what can I be? What should I be? Who decides?
Yet, for the “I” there must be a “you”, for the “we” there must be a “them”. How are they related? For the proton, there is an electron. And there are laws governing the highly precise relationship between the proton and the electron entities. And there is a law governing the relationship between the nucleus and the electrons. The order is perfect. But where is the law to govern the “I” and “you”, the “we” and “them”. What are the definitions? Who is a man? Who is a woman? What law should govern how the two entities relate? Who are “we”? Who are “they”? Define them. How do “we” relate to “they”? Who decides?
In this quest, I happened upon the idea of the “Universal Man”. Was he the holy grail? Was the Universal man the penultimate measure? Was there a tribe of Renaissance men? Was science the code? Were Da Vinci, Aljazari, Michelangelo, Machiavelli, Ibn Sina, Alghazali brothers. But these men defied all these limits. They were as much scientists as they were artists.
It could not be. It was too limited. Why was science separate from art? Why was everything segmented, fragmented into all these discrete hard blocks? And yet while different, the same. Like looking at the different planes of a single crystal and presuming they were discrete objects? Like the spectrum of colours refracted from a single ray of light. Yes, this was what it was. I sensed intuitively looking at the tribes and nations of the world I was looking at the dispersed spectrum end of the human ray of light, all of Humanity was actually Desmond Tutu’s “Rainbow Nation”.
But where was the refracting prism? The dispersing drop of rain? It had to be the same prism that was dispersing thoughts, ideas and knowledge into a multiplicity of highly fragmented disjointed subjects. If so where was it? For it was surely the medium by which we would unify knowledge into one and following the ray of white light, man would find enlightenment.
Would you really die for Raila?
I packed my belongings and left. Found myself heading west. Kisumu. Home. Away from Nairobi, the green city under the sun. Funny, that once all I wanted was to get out of Kisumu, move to Nairobi and feed on the proverbial green grass but the past years have left me with an itch that has been hard to ignore and I scratched it finally by moving back home. I had been disappointed by Nairobi. I had not seen the green grass. The monsters that lurked the dark alleyways of the city had ravaged me, and I had to find a safe place to lick my wounds and recuperate. I called my younger sister in Kisumu and told her to get me a place where I would move.
But the Kisumu I was seeing being shown on the TV and in the photos circulating on social media (posted, shared, tweeted, retweeted, forwarded) was not a place I, or anyone I knew, wanted to go to. So I fought the itch. Ignored it. But like a rat with small daggers for teeth, it bit into me. And so on a rather uncharacteristic sunny day, I found myself travelling home. This, exactly a week before Jamhuri day, a day that had been circled on the calendar as the date for the swearing in of the former Prime Minister and Opposition Leader, Raila Odinga by members of the National Resistance Movement. This news had spread a bad flu all over the country and no one knew exactly what to expect. And yet, I was going home.
In the wake of this, my friends tried to dissuade me.
Kisumu will not be safe. If Raila gets sworn in, GSU and Mungiki will be sent to kill you. Words that bounced in the halls of my head, spilling fear into me every single day. I fought hard to ignore them but deep inside, the fear was welling up, unfurling and blooming like a black rose and all its thorns. The date of the swearing in was coming close and all over the town, the only talk was that of a coup d’etat for Raila Odinga to take his rightful place as the leader of the country. A coup was wrong. People would die. But Baba’s victory had been stolen from him and he was justified in swearing in himself as the President. I sat in the midst of uncles and aunts who talked of nothing but the swearing in ceremony.
Then the swearing in was called off. Postponed.
“This Baba is not serious.”
“We were ready to lay our lives for him and he leaves us like this?”
“Baba has left us hanging.”
The public outcry, fed to me in bits by Titus, my boda boda taxi guy as he took me to the office every morning. I sat at the back, silent on most times, the wind cutting through his words and blowing them away. I had so many questions I wanted to ask, but this was a man who was ready to lay his life down for another man and I had to be careful how I broached the subject. “Would you really die for Raila?”
I asked, my hand gripping the metal railing that lines the seat. He was silent for a while and I thought he had not heard my question. I was about to ask again when his words came with the wind,
“It’s not about dying for Raila. It’s all about what’s good for the country. And I would die for what’s good for this country.”
And as if he had been surprised by his own words, he went silent. I wanted to tell him I no longer believed in Kenya. I wanted to tell him that this country only takes, takes, takes and never gives back. I wanted to tell him how this country was the mother that killed all her children because they asked her for food; for more. Instead, I sat silent as Titus overtook a trailer loaded with sugarcane and I turned to look at the three street boys, barely fifteen, hanging at the back of the trailer.
“If it came to war, I would move to another country.”
“Where would you go?”
It was only after Titus asked this that I realised I had voiced my thoughts.
“I don’t know. Uganda. Or maybe Tanzania. I have friends there.”
He scoffed, increasing the speed of the motorbike. Had my statement offended him?
“You are a coward.”
Excuse you? Unspoken. Instead, I laughed nervously, the laughter escaping my lips and disappearing before me.
“Yes, you are a coward because you’d leave your country to go hide in another person’s country. Who do you think will fight for Kenya if we all run?”
I caught myself before I could add something else.
“Yes, I will. I will stay here and fight while you run. But even those places you are running to, people had to fight to make them better.”
He navigated a corner. “So that cowards like you can now run there.”
I had had enough of the insults. I knew where he was coming from really, I understood. But the word coward fell on me like a sledgehammer and I did not have a defense. I could have unleashed my arguments riddled with big English words that would confuse even me, the speaker. Instead, I chose silence. I turned my gaze to the left and spotted the sign, B.PENDO HIGHWAY, written in dripping letters that communicated the urgency: the writer must have been doing it in fear, or in a hurry, or they wanted to get done with it all at once. Underneath it, the old name – Jomo Kenyatta Highway – struggling to be seen. Eclipsed, but a few letters fighting to come to the fore. A few metres from there, a new name painted over the words Jubilee Market – Orengo Market. Barely a hundred metres along B. Pendo Highway, the shattered glass walls of Naivas Supermarket, the constant reminder of the violence the streets speak. The constant reminder that revolutions, as Titus and the others call it, are things that come with consequences. Consequences that one must be prepared for.
The motorbike comes to a halt and I hand Titus a hundred shillings note. He folds it into four squares and puts it in his breast pocket. I ask him why he does not refuse to take the note bearing Jomo Kenyatta’s portrait. He starts his engine and speeds off, his laughter ringing in my ears as it trails behind him.
Kisumu is not like Nairobi. The buildings do not rise until the clouds lick their tops and the sun has to take a back seat and surprise you with its coming and goings. The people do not push against you on the streets and insult you with their looks when you turn to face them. Kisumu is the widowed mother whose children abandon and run for the capital in search of a better life. She sits at the door in the evenings and waits, watching the sun – orange, smouldering, fiery – as it sinks into the horizon. She waits. When dark falls, she folds herself and goes back into the house, ready to repeat the same the following day. She ages, but she does not despair. Sometimes, her children come back in coffins.
One sunny day in August 2017, a blanket of sadness falls over the town when the election results start streaming in. Raila Odinga is trailing the incumbent, Uhuru Kenyatta. A wave of anguish spreads, making people fold their arms over their chests and shaking their drooping heads. My father looks at the TV screen and says, “This is going to be bad.”
My mother is still hopeful that Raila will be declared president. Both of them agree that Kisumu will not be safe. The boot of the car is filled with all the necessities and we head for Gem, our rural home. True to their words, the news comes in trickles from the solar-powered radio, saying that riots have broken out in Kisumu and the police are killing the protesters. This is not limited to Kisumu. In Siaya, a bodaboda rider and a grandmother. In Kibera, young boys. In Mathare and Huruma, children. In Migori, women. Social media is awash with graphic images of people with bullet wounds all over their bodies. Everywhere, red.
“They are going to finish us all this time.”
My mother as she slowly stirs a pot of beef stew.
I am standing at the office window, staring down at the streets below us. My boss gets up from his seat and says, “The town is deserted today.” to no one in particular. I nod. Across the road, the shops are closed and a few metres away, a cameraman carries the tripod, sets it down, and starts filming. The other man speaks into the black fluffy microphone. I wish I could hear what they are saying.
It is Tuesday, the 30th day of January. The day of the swearing in.
Titus did not bring me to work. He told me he was far when I asked him if he could pick me up in the morning. “Far where?” I pressed.
“Nairobi. I had to go and see Baba being sworn in.”
I had not imagined the possibility of Titus taking a bus to Nairobi to Uhuru Park to see Raila Odinga being sworn in. I had not imagined this day actually coming to pass. I had held my skepticism close. But now, seeing photos and videos online of the number of people who are at Uhuru Park, sweating in the sun and chanting Raila Odinga’s name, I start to truly see where Titus gets his conviction from. I look at the images and imagine him being there, holding a placard above his head, his voice rising and getting lost in the sea of voices and I wait.
I see Titus two days later and I do not waste time asking him,
“So did you see Baba carrying the bible?”
He responds with a smile on his face.
“I was there. We did not get switched off like your TVs.”
We both laugh.
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