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. “Tutire na wira wa nyamu cia ruguru, niathie agathondekerwo kundu kungi 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.
“Nikii uregia na maundu 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.
The Radicals Are Not Yet Born
So here you are,
Too foreign for home,
Too foreign for here,
Never enough for both’
~ Ijeoma Umebinyuo
When I acquiesced to the idea that the solution to our problems was to be conquered with the patience of waiting for the Baby Boomers to die off by virtue of fate, I forgot the likes of Moi, the Silent Generation, who carry with them genes of immortality. They grew up believing that ‘children are to be seen not heard’ so most of their actions were just- actions- little said or justified. Then came the Boomers born in the mid-50s to the start of 70s, who consider themselves the fighters for our civil liberties– you cannot tell them anything to the contrary for they know best; they have seen it all. Then come the in-betweeners, the ones we Generation Y’s look at in dismay – that’s the Generation X, the new policymakers. They had the privilege of being the early adopters to the personal freedoms fought for by their predecessors, but have instead caught themselves in the shackles of a system they do not wish to alter; it becomes an internal scramble for Kenya.
Can I call it my country? Or will I just say, ‘Hey, I’m a global citizen’ to disclaim the shame of it. I own no land and home is where I hang my hat- never staying too long in one place to make it; a wanderer, a restless spirit, paradoxically, secretly searching for home. The wait for the ‘die-off’ is longer than anticipated. But maybe those traits are in my DNA. I walk about hosting them in oblivion. An identity I do not understand and that I do not own.
This brings me to thinking of my Baby Boomer father – a highly educated man for his era, PhD I mean. He was a happy young man who became an angry older man. By the time he died, I was still not sure what he was angry about. And by the time he lay on his deathbed the anger had metamorphosed into regret. His last words to me were apologies. What did it matter by then? Nothing could be done. He left me nothing but the consequences of his deeds.
Now I know why I love stories. I recall the stories he’d tell. Like how he had to run several kilometres to get to school. Upon arriving late, a thorough whipping was dispensed on the buttocks. Salt sprinkled over the wounds to further hurt and in the process appease as well. I found it strange that the new local authorities mistreated them in the same way they had been mistreated by the colonisers, the slave drivers. As an adult I see that nothing has changed. We gained independence, yet in some way they won, made us rats- eating ourselves up, giving up our resources for personal gain, only to die painfully and lonely- at best laid in an expensive coffin. This makes me tear when I listen to the National Anthem, placing my hand to my chest. Pathetically sad.
My father – feels strange to utter those words repeatedly for I rarely speak of him – he told me that you can lose everything, but no one can take your education away from you. I took his words with me. This is because, at age 12, at the time they spoke of him in past tense – the usual false sentimentalities of funerals – they still called him Daktari. “Daktari was …” I would have quoted something further but honestly, I do not remember; I was not paying attention. It was the Generation X’s talking again, the noisemakers; ready to fight for the little he had left. I was just a child – the Y, born in the 80s – the observer searching for the voice I had never been allowed to have. I wished I could stand up and tell them, “You got it all wrong, this is what you should have said if you must, …” How did that education make it better for us? We were left trying to figure out who we were in that barbaric animal farm.
And that’s what it feels like since. An inherited traumatic identity, story, voice that I do not own and I cannot rectify. I live through it attempting to redefine it in a whole other space.
Does it start with the names or end with the names?
It’s close to election time, 2017. I park my little vehicle across from the main gate of the Department of Defence (DOD) so that I could easily walk to where I needed to go. As I exit the parking, he sermons me – Mr. Soldier. At that point, I am 100 percent certain it’s the vulnerability of being a petite female of mixed race that lands me in this predicament. I yield, for after all, he is armed. I observe his colleagues. They look very proud of their armor and pistols- neatly tucked on their waist belt, in a white (of all colours) holster. White definitely means there was no intention to be subtle about it. Perhaps they adopted white because that is what white colonial masters did, and they didn’t consider that a black (or chocolate) holster would work better on them. Or maybe, they know well the power an open carry weapon serves in intimidation, ‘see and recognise the deadly powers I possess.’
Frankly, I think death by gun is the most benevolent way to die – just saying.
As the soldier speaks to me, I listen and think it all through. I even smile pleasantly. He realizes intimidation wouldn’t work well with me. Not because I do not get intimidated, but because I was not easily frazzled and I confess, I was admiring his toys! That white holster was arresting!
Of course I was excited, it was my first time to get past the barrier of the Department of Defence. I would not have minded venturing further in.
He asks for my ID. I show it to him. See, I was born in Nyeri. As much as I love the Mt. Kenya region, I have no heritage in that part of the country. I just happened to be born there while my father was on an assignment and my mother accompanied him. “Oh, Nyangi, so you are my sister,” he said. Suddenly we were related and his tone changes. I do not play dumb. I know what he means. I explain that I was not from Mt. Kenya region and I only had two siblings known to me. He laughs; the kind of annoying laugh one makes when they want to be boastful.
Then he cockily unfastens his bullet-proof jacket to escort me to my car. He shares his telephone number and says, “If anyone disturbs you, call me.” How ironic. If only I could call him to deal with himself. He then proceeds to say, “Flash me so I can have your contacts.” I tell, I will, but he insists that I do it there and then. I oblige so as to avoid further trouble – perhaps that is cowardly, but I just want to leave!
Each one of these incidents have become a theatre of experience for me. It can get weary though.
The soldier, he makes sure to contact me to find out if I voted. He is making the assumption that my loyalty to my place of birth would incline us to vote similarly; he is my brother – after all? I do not respond, because I can’t afford to tell this armed Generation X that I was not voting. I had already received a mouthful from my older friends about this. They could not understand – I do not identify and I do not want to choose between death by slow-acting poison or by hanging – the final result is the same. Let them, who know each other choose among themselves.
My Tribe – Youth Culture
I had other commitments that day. I was going to be hanging out with others like me. We would exercise, then gather at a cafe and talk about our ideas- the things that made sense to us: the spoken poetry coming up, the new love affair, the book I have not started writing, healing and spirituality. Then we would go and watch a young live band, sing love songs on heartbreak and longing. Everyone would be there: black, white, Asian, mixed-race. In that space it did not matter who you were. It just mattered that we were sharing something unspoken: that longing for something, for somewhere, for someone.
This is what it has come to, parallel universes in the same country. While the Baby Boomers polish their wills and the Generation X refuse to shut up, I and those I represent, are crafting new stories. I do not watch news and I seldom read newspapers. Those outlets don’t tell my tale and I can’t afford to get them told, so I write blogs and I endorse forums such as ONE TOUCH on Instagram. Here we celebrate the beauty and abundance we still believe our country holds in its wildlife and counterculture escapades off the beaten track. I attend Free Mind Sessions to discuss our emancipation from the patriarchal chains of being, and listen to the Villagers at J’s while having a cocktail and chatting on why we need to heal and learn to love again. I balance the social media with the face-to-face time with these events, because I realise that authentic human connection is what we are desperate for. And even if my social media feed is slightly righteous, portraying my life from a breakthrough angle, I am well aware I have skeletons to deal with – I just don’t rush to overtly rant about my neighbours dirty laundry that spoils my scenic view all over the internet. I listen to the stories I relate to, told by my mates on YouTube, so that when TV stations get shutdown, I do not even notice until I see the headline running through my other stream.
That is what makes us the Y’s. Meanwhile the X’s seem to be in a state of perpetual outrage, only to realise late in the day, that they had no friends when they are unable to respond to the favours demanded by their peers. All those long hours spent in the bars chatting politics and entitlement away was a faux! It is not until this moment that the X’s recall the Hip Hop music of protest they listened to as youth. Their path seemed straightforward; they hit 40 content with life and successfully paying off mortgages, a divorce here and there – no big deal. They were born at the time when personal freedom was becoming the buzzword, but ended up feeling entitled, living their lives individualistically, forgetting the next generation coming through and we require some breathing space too. So while the Y’s are competing on who had a better breakfast on IG selfies, the X’s are shooting at each other from the hip on FB, blinded to the real issues we want to fix: our children’s rights to a good education, our right to basic needs, unemployment, low wages, healthcare. Therefore, I gather among the counterculturists, where we try to understand how we are going to navigate our difficult realities and imagine a future.
The truth is …
I love Kenya, so dearly, I feel attached to Africa- deeply. And the only way to continue loving it, is to continue crafting this new world while waiting for the other to become obsolete. With my other Y’s we drive our conversations in our social spaces believing that eventually we will have our maturing identities validated. We will not be talking of names, we will be talking of equity. Or so we dare to imagine.
Anyway, that specific evening, after my version of voting day, I met my Generation X lover, just to ensure the day – a holiday to me – is complete in all ways possible. He kept all gadgets on, following the news closely and contributing to the arrogant social media mob justice streaming on Facebook and WhatsApp groups. He commented about a friend who is no longer a friend – a heated exchange of political insults led to an expulsion from the group. I keenly listened but felt detached and irritated that my evening was not going as planned. We finally made love (the one apolitical moment I could have with him). The next morning I was awoken by the cacophony of him tuning into the latest ‘Fifth Estate’ episode. And there it goes again, that noise.
To my Father …
Have I forgiven you? Yes. But I cannot forget. I cannot forget the day I tried to have a voice – I spoke – and you said you would tie me to the tree at the backyard at night and the dogs would eat me up. I was only 10. I am still trying to understand who I am and it has started with learning to have a voice. That’s why I write, in a state of angst.
Arundhati Roy — ‘There’s really no such thing as the ‘voiceless’. There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard.’
A Thin Line Between Loyalty and Fanaticism
“I resist fanatic nationalism. We die for the flag, and who dies? It is the poor, not the rich.” – Nawal El-Sadaawi
There is something about being alive at a certain age when certain events happen. The consciousness alone makes you feel as if everything you have observed since childhood has been a build-up to this singular moment. And the awareness to be able to say, “I was alive when this happened.” That is how I felt about the 2017 elections. The build-up, the climax, and the inevitable anti-climax all informed me of my role in the society, making me realise that despite existing in the same country, we are still very far from being a nation that endures and thrives in its commonality while cherishing the differences.
JUNE 27, 2017
The man in the orange jumper stands to my left and tells me he is hungry. I roll this sentence in my head and wonder what I should do with this information. He proceeds to ask if I can give him something small for a meal. I keep walking. A bus hoots as it leaves the stage and while reversing, it temporarily blocks my path. The man is still with me, his breathing louder and closer to me. He tells me to slow down, I don’t. I have known not to talk to these types. Then he grabs my arm and tells me,
“You know we don’t like hurting people but if you don’t give me something, I will kill you.”
My heartbeat is the sound of a drum inside my head. I pause and regard his face – oblong, whistle nose, stubs of hair on his chin and dreadlocks that jump from his head and fall on his shoulders – as one regards the face of an adversary. It is no use fighting, I know I won’t win. I reach into my pockets and hand him a creased, aged two hundred shillings note. He takes it, shoves it into his pocket and tells me that’s not enough. I am taken aback by the audacity. “You know, we are too many and this won’t be enough.”
That is when I feel the second man to my right. I do not turn to face him. His voice is all the face I need; groggy like he is just woken from a deep sleep.
“Ongeza pesa brathe.” I am hesitant to add any more money. It’s that time of the month and I only have 2,200 on my person. If I give it to him, I will have nothing. But better to have nothing than not be alive, right? So I fish out the 2,000 shillings and hand to the man in dreadlocks. He tells me, “Tafuta zingine.”
“Sina.” I retort. My heart sinks to a place of despair.
“Toa ile iko kwa Mpesa.”
I tell him my Mpesa balance is zero and he demands to see. I tell him I can’t give him my Mpesa PIN and he says I show him the message. He threatens again to harm me and I show him the message. He takes the phone and puts it away.
A third person has now appeared – tall, lanky and with breath that is the stench of something rotting. He places something round, metallic and cold around the lower part of my back and asks where I am coming from. I tell him that I am from school. He grabs my backpack and asks if I am carrying a laptop. I am terrified and I nod. He asks if I love my life. I have never thought of an answer to that question. What does it mean to love your life? I tell him, I do and hand over the backpack. Inside: Everything I can lay claim to as a student. All gone within a moment. People stand around and look at me being stripped of my possessions and dignity.
But this is Nairobi, and to intervene is to interfere; something that may cost your life. So they all witness and participate as accomplices to the vile act. The participants, the witnesses and the participating witnesses are all victims of a broken down system that no longer cares about the existence of the same people they are meant to protect. A government that once elected into office, ceases to care about anything else except power.
I am alive at the end of it all, when they run back to the dark alleys where they are bound to split my belongings like the scavengers they are. I walk towards the bus station. I feel dirty, violated, threatened. I feel as if a huge chunk of my being has been yanked from me. All the hard work, slipping through my fingers. I mean, what’s the whole point of working hard when it can all be taken away from you in the split of a moment? In the weeks to follow, several friends of mine lament on social media about the rising crime rates. They all report having been stripped of their phones, laptops, cameras, money.
A few minutes before this incident I am seated with a friend at a cafe along Kimathi Street talking about how in this country, everything seems to be geared towards killing the people it’s meant to protect (paraphrase). A bleak conversation that morphs, folds, moves away and ends in laughter.
I get home and call my mother. She comforts me and tells me I am lucky to be alive. I know what she means. Two weeks before this incidence, I wake up to the news that a Facebook friend of mine attempted to resist being robbed and he was shot. The concrete that lines the floor of the city, like the vampire it has been trained to be, drunk his blood and vomited nothing back. That is why I am lucky to be alive. Equating existence to valuables. Not ideal. But in this city, nothing is ideal.
I tell my mother that I want to leave Nairobi. To go to Kisumu, to surround myself with familiarity and safety. Her voice, on the other side, “During an election year, nowhere is safe.”
AUGUST 8, 2017
KISUMU – GEM
The queue at the polling station snakes and winds without regard to the biting chill that finds its way into the bones. People – young, old, tired, restless, energetic – stand like stacks of old batteries ready to be knocked down by a stone in a children’s game. Perhaps it is the way that people rise early to join the queues, with some sleeping at the polling stations, that makes me wonder if they truly believe in the electoral system or they cling to the hope that by casting their vote, they will finally have a say in how the country is run. Either way, I think it comes from a place of obligation. The question is, to who is this obligation owed? For some, tribe; for others, class. How many can truly say this obligation is towards the country – inspired by feelings of patriotism?
At dusk, we get into a car and head for our rural home. “This place will not be safe.” My mother to my father in the hope that it spills to us. She has bought packets of unga, rice, omena, and cooking oil in readiness for any eventuality. Her voice is a blunt object drawn over glass when she tells me, “There may be a war this time.”
I start thinking about this possibility and I wondered where would be safe. I left – ran away from – Nairobi in the hope that Kisumu would provide that cushion against the horrors of the world, but the days after the elections have shown that sometimes, as a citizen, you try running away from the thieves, thugs and vagabonds only to meet the police and the distinction, I have realised, is near non-existent.
DECEMBER 12, 2017 – JANUARY 30, 2018
KISUMU – NAIROBI
The elections are gone, but the politics is alive and the vigour that accompanies it is felt nowhere else than in the city of Kisumu. The sons and daughters of the lake are charged politically and the news that the Opposition leader, Raila Odinga, is to be sworn in is all that is on the tongues of the residents of Kisumu. Living in Kisumu has opened me to the awareness that the people around me have deliberately refused to acknowledge the election of Uhuru Kenyatta, instead choosing to believe that the election was won by Raila Odinga and he, rightfully, ought to sit on the ‘throne’. When met with economic hardships, I hear the people around me mumble, “Uhuru has spoilt the country. We wouldn’t be having this is Raila was the president.”
I am too young to understand the enigma that is Raila Odinga. Being born in the 90s denies me the ability to share in the love or disdain that people seem to have for him. The bits I know about him is what I have read in the history books, newspapers, seen on TV, heard on radio and fed to me in portions by relatives and family who have an inkling of how he came to be who he is. And much as I am cognizant of the contributions towards the democratic space we enjoy now, I do not share in the enthusiasm of my parents who tell us to keep quiet every time Raila is on the TV. They believe he is the only one who can bring the much-needed redemption.
Like my younger brother who doesn’t understand why we couldn’t just Mpesa someone when we talk about the hardships of sending someone money in the early part of the millennium, I am detached from the voice that is Raila Odinga. The detachment, I believe, comes from the fact that as much as he has always championed the ideals in the society and most times spoke for people of my parents’ generation, I believe he no longer speaks to me and the people of my generation. The frustration is even more apparent when as a young Luo man, living in Kisumu, I have to navigate spaces where he is constantly the discussion. My parents look at my siblings and me when we say we don’t get the whole ‘Raila-mania’ and they wonder what they did wrong in parenting.
Perhaps, this ‘Raila-mania’ is their way of coping with the reality that is not shared by us.
What does it mean for a man to have a cult personality that draws thousands and thousands of people to him like moths towards the Optimus™ lamp? At what point in a man’s life does he achieve god-like status to the extent that people – other men, women – are able to lay their lives for him if it comes to it? These are questions I am unable to answer.
Someday, the hope is, I will be able to understand.
There is a fire in the valley
I grew up with barely any assurances and almost no sense of security, whatsoever. Do not, misconstrue what I mean by security or assurances. There is hardly a trace of either one when one is raised in an environment that offers absolutely no guarantees of safety in your home, of your home and your life. I have to admit this from the outset or else the story I am going to tell will make no sense.
The very first time I ever encountered a community fire outbreak, I was only four years old. It is crazy how clearly I recollect the chain of events from that fateful night. I had been sound asleep when all of a sudden mama stormed into the house with two men. Each one of them was restless and troubled. They quickly grabbed me, tossing me out of the house, and then hurriedly began emptying the single room. Outside, I realized people were in the midst of battling an incredible conflagration but to no avail. Calls to the fire brigade service bore no fruit. It was catastrophic in its trail of devastation. Options for water sources were very limited as well. The inferno raged on and on. It grew huge, orange and angry that resolutions were quickly made to empty and demolish the houses in the line of fire, in an attempt to stop it from spreading its wrath any further.
That day, it was the people who answered the plight of the people; and they did not lose heart in the face of dire challenges such as lack of response from the authorities, nor did they sit around helplessly. As a matter of fact, the fire brigades were greeted with overwhelming hostility upon late arrival to the scene, hours after the fire was put out.
Yet, this is sadly the normalised narrative and recurring story of these socially marginalised neighborhoods twenty years on. There is no counting just how many families have ended up displaced by home fires across the years. It is a harsh and unfortunate reality, that people have been forced to live with. The implication of being a simple Kenyan slum resident is to embrace the uncertainty of one’s life. Nothing is ever guaranteed. In the heat of a roaring fire, the community responds with speed and the subconscious division of roles is efficiently remarkable. For young men, all roads lead to rooftops as the first line of defense against fiery flames. It is the young men, the bravest and the strongest, who must face the heat. Others are kept busy cutting electric connections while some help evacuate houses, demolishing them if need be. Most of the women engage in finding water for the men to fight fire with. They form elaborately long queues at every water point within vicinity, jerricans, buckets and basins in hand. The buckets are passed from one person to another upon filling, up to the fire, and back. However, finding these water points is not without difficulty. It entails bursting lots of pipes, scooping water from the filthy tiny rivulets, “mitaro” or going all the way down to the shallow turbid and sewage infested Mathare River.
This is the struggle that goes on for hours on end while calls to the fire brigades never bear any fruit. The frustration of helplessness in the face of a fire can be overwhelming. The role of children is mostly to watch family belongings – kids are regarded useful if they keep a safe distance from the scene of the fire. Loss of focus is not a luxury anyone can afford. Even as a child, you are expected to pay attention to the job at hand. Staring in one direction dazed or even looking unfocused is an insult to the ‘men at work’. In case you get tired, the most reasonable thing to do is leave room for someone else to join the battle. The struggle carries on until the fire subsides. Then the tumult of shouting and mourning from the crowd follows. It gets quite tense and the air chokes you with not only the billowing black smoke but also the silent curses of residents, recounting losses. Where there has been a fire, it is only the ashes that remain.
On 24th December 2017, I visited my mother and siblings at our home in Kosovo, Mathare in the evening to share in the spirit and cheer, symbolic of a blessed Merry Christmas to follow the next morning. From a distance, Kosovo slopes down an elongated view of shanty houses made from rusted corrugated iron sheets that hide its wooden skeleton. The community is vibrant and you find happy kids playing everywhere. There is a cacophony of noises and smells. You will also lose count of the small businesses along the main path mostly selling street food. Solid cement structures are rare here. One particular thing that stands out is how closely packed these houses are. Some even threaten to topple over others! The pathways between houses allow minimal, if any, space to walk. Then there are electric wires interconnected through houses without much care, mostly illegal connections. They dangle precariously but hey, I mean – people need access to affordable electricity down here too, right?
My two little sisters, Njeri and Wanjira, were overjoyed to see me. I could tell they were eager to share their latest stories. It was written all over their bright eyes, sheepish smiles and glowing bright faces. Wanjira made elaborate attempts at trying to make me jealous over of her newly bought Christmas outfit. She was emphatic about how the following day mum was going to take them to meet cousins at my aunt’s place in Ruai. This, according to her innocent boasting, was going to make for a perfect fashion duel where we would compete for the prize of the best–dressed-family-member. Listening to her, I could only marvel at her newly acquired ‘expertise’ in the fashion industry. She is quite something, this little sister of mine and I love her to bits! Besides, this is the main reason why we all usually find time to go back home to savor the immense gratification that comes with seeing those you care for exuberant and full of life.
At around 6 am the next morning, I received a call from my mother. She was crying. There and then, I figured this call was not about to be a Christmas greeting or anything along that line. Nobody ever calmly adjusts to a mother in a state of distress. It is a tough pill to swallow. She started on how that night, not so long after I left home, Kosovo went up in flames. I could taste the bitterness in her voice as she recounted how she became one of the victims of a fire that robbed over 200 families of their homes. I was greatly troubled listening to my mother over the phone.
So, I took the road and rushed back home. Home! See, that’s funny now because when I got there it was a vast darkened field filled with smoke, dust, burnt iron sheets and confused devastated people. There was no one who had managed to rescue anything. It took strength to come to terms with the bare facts. Imagine! All those years of hard work, savings and sacrifice to buy household items went down in the inferno. Just like that. My mother was gutted and I totally unable to console her. When Njeri and Wanjira ran to my embrace crying, my stomach churned. I swallowed hard. Of course, they kept lamenting the bad fortune that befell them on Christmas and how awful it felt to learn that their special Christmas dresses all burned down to ashes.
My family was hosted by another family for as long as was required to regain stability. This is the usual order of business for the victims of Mathare fires. It is through this communal sharing of problems that most people even find the strength to keep going. This virtue of compassion and resilience never makes it to the breaking news bulletin. In the aftermath of a fire, the following week involves a lot of reconstruction and an attempt at new beginnings. To most, it means starting life from scratch. From bare bones and ash. Even so, you are still never assured of safety or survival, for the threat of an inferno is never too far from becoming reality. This is a kind of recurring dilemma you have to constantly grapple with. For instance, since the Kosovo fire in December 2017 that my family was caught up in, two more fires have gone down in Mathare’s Mlango Kubwa ward and Mabatini ward in January and February 2018, displacing a sum of about 600 households altogether and claiming lives of 6 young children. So, people are forced to live with the constant fear of losing their belongings and the lives of their children. No one dares buy any valuable household commodities, in an environment this volatile.
I am a sad young fellow, with reason. Not because my family lost everything to the fire (Although that is a plausible reason by all means) or because my two siblings missed their much anticipated Christmas treat; but because this fire, all Mathare fires are symbols of normalized social injustices that have become part and parcel of communities living in informal settlements. Very little is ever done, other than pity, to address them because it is normal for shanties to be razed in slum fires. This same script is applied to all other forms of social injustice afflicting slum dwellers. It is already a miracle attaining the age of thirty as a young man living in Mathare. It is either by grace, bribe or constant running for your life from the police. Criminal or not, to survive, you have to learn how to accurately discern a killer police ‘Probox’ car and avoid heading into harm’s way. An encounter with the ‘Boys In Probox’ can end up badly, as a young man on the ground, bullet in skull.
Having been born and raised in Mlango Kubwa, Mathare, I have had to make choices in how I live my life. Some choices are obviously tougher than others to make, but they are choices I must make regardless. And there are consequences for each decision. Concurrently, I have learnt so many lessons first hand. To survive the scorching flames of injustice, the most powerful weapon we have is each other, and our collective voice. The same way these recurring fires devastate our lives, smothering our hopes and dreams, is the same way recurring social problems burn our spirits down to the ground. The same way we put out infernos and muster the strength to reconstruct our dwellings, so shall we face and tackle any social injustices inflicted on us, consequently rebuilding an ethical community for our lives today and the lives of our children tomorrow. That way, we will not only be fighting for our human rights, but also for our humanity. Meanwhile, someone tell Santa that my two little sisters did not enjoy the Christmas fireworks.
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