On June 8, 2015, I stood in a labour ward waiting for our bundle of joy. When she arrived, shortly after 10.30 a.m., I was beside myself with joy, totally overwhelmed.
Those of a religious disposition know the kind of emotions one goes through when God answers prayers. For the longest time, I prayed to God for a daughter to name after my late mother. The first glance at her, revealed a double stroke of luck; she was not only a girl, but she took after my mother.
I stood in the corridors overjoyed, painfully aware that in under two months I would leave the young one to go for my graduate studies in the United States. I was torn. I wanted to spend every waking moments with the girl for two reasons: Biologically she is my daughter and culturally, she is my mother too. Secondly, I never had a father, and to me, this was a divine chance to try and be the best father she would ever want. Sure, against my will, going for grad school proved to be most stressful experience, I was so depressed in New York Streets that I barely coped with the class room pressure. Upon graduation, I boarded the next plane home and spent the next 10 months bonding with my little girl. It was the most fulfilling thing in the world.
Kids are so sweet. Makes me wonder why men run away from them.
I have never seen my father. I do not know if he knows that I exist. I do not know if he is still around or he died a long time ago. Whether he is still in active employment or long retired. I do not know if I have other stepbrothers and sisters, and God-forbid, if our paths have ever crossed, without recognising our common bond.
As a reckless teenager, I once angered and offended one of my guardian aunts. Minutes later she fished some photo of the purported father for a reason I have never known. He was tall, wearing those greenish-blueish suits. I do not remember the face, for I was angry and teary, but I remember a benign smile that revealed nothing.
I have managed to numb any feelings towards the old man. I decided to live with the fact that I will never know my paternal heritage. Whether they had murderers in the family, a history of suicide, or any genetical disorder that shows up every third generation, that I somehow escaped, but may recur in my children or grand-children is something time will tell.
If not for that photo, I will never have bothered with the thought of my father. But that photograph planted an element of doubt, and every other day I dream of some demon possessing me to pay for a want-ad in a newspaper or embarking on search for him.
Indeed, those wakeful nights, when my insomnia gets in the way, which is far too often, I do think about him.
Why did he leave? I want to assume that I tick all the boxes. I am everything an African father would have been proud of: My report form was always impressive, I made it to the best university in Kenya and a top Ivy League university in America. I married in good time and there is a granddaughter to parade. Stuff that most parents cherish. Why did he leave?
In those idle moments, like when stuck in Mombasa Road traffic with a dead phone, I imagine tracking him down to a village, maybe he is in a drinking den, maybe he found Jesus and is now a church elder…Or he died long time ago, and in that eventuality, I will have closure. Chances of making that resolve are closer to nil and zero.
My father was a baby boomer. Kenyan baby boomers, have been a spectacular failure. Certainly, there are decent and noble men from that generation, but if they were a class, they would be D-grade. And this is not because my father took off.
Despite the gift of formal education, exposure, travel, and interactions with the outside world beyond their ethnic enclosures, the men from this generation have been underwhelming. Nobody summed up who they are better than Laureen Wesonga, a Chevening Scholar,
“I call them(the) independence generation, they are petty, they are greedy, they are insecure. Woe unto you if you are younger, smarter (and female), am like who traumatized this lot? And it doesn’t help that they are running the country at the moment. That’s why our country is an orgy of pettiness, incompetence, general mediocrity. That’s why there is a hostility to intellectual investment and output.”
My father’s generation has contributed virtually nothing meaningful to the country, whether politically, intellectually or economically, other than pillage, obnoxious if primitively grabbing and accumulation of wealth. Young people now have arrested development because the elders ate the food even made for babies.
Most of them still hold positions of power and influence in various institutions, which they run like their personal fiefdoms, giving young people no chance whatsoever to prosper. It is this generation that imposes a fine Sh 5,000 to graduate job seekers who are yet to start their Higher Education Loans Board payments. It is the generation that requires young job seekers to spend KSh 5,000 in useless paper work as a perquisite when seeking government employment. The generation that is likely to deny a woman a job or a promotion because she said NO to their advances, and just as quick to unethically promote an undeserving one who cooperated. And this is the same attitude they approach fatherhood. Some were reckless drunks. Some married two or three wives when they could not sustain the one.
Amoral. Unethical. Disgusting.
In the circa 1980s, men could scatter their wild oats and disappear. Today, you will not run away from Child Support, however far or fast you run. Courts, tabloids, bloggers and social media will hold you accountable. Absentee fathers live in mortal fear of the law catching up with them.
Some of us were unlucky to have grown up without our fathers, even though we turned up fine. Or did we?
What was worse, was having a father who was absent emotionally. As a bare minimum, children expected of their fathers: the provision of the basic life needs like school fees, being present and the occasional pat on the shoulder. Visiting us in school, buying a gift was more than enough. All we needed.
The generation of our fathers came in three shades: The loving, generous and kind (a few and far between). Secondly, were the patriarchal tyrants who respected neither their wives nor their children (their daughters eloped at the earliest opportunity, if only to be safe and sons ran away from to the nearby town for menial jobs) And thirdly, were the colourless and incompetent, who left their wives to do all the parenting (quite a pathetic lot, mostly married a second wife, or kept a mistress abandoning their first family).
There is nothing to say about cool and responsible fathers.
But the latter two, let’s unpack them.
I have talked to a good number of friends on how the relationship with their fathers is shaping or has shaped their attitude to life and especially towards parenting.
It is surprising how dissatisfied most people are towards their fathers (I have two rare cases where people are dissatisfied with their mothers, but that is for another day). I know a few who have had to physically confront their fathers for continuously being abusive, disrespectful and violent towards their mothers. They drew the line, curses notwithstanding, and held their old men by the collars and gave them a piece of their mind.
There are fathers who did bad things because of ignorance. But more annoyingly were those who knew better but still run away, or those who stayed, but were abusive and the only memories we can conjure of them are the dark days they put us through. Most of my peers never quite forgave their fathers or are very ambivalent towards them.
Women who grew up with abusive fathers are very skeptical of men and can be unduly cautious. Men, either chose to be the exact opposite of their fathers, or the trauma of the abuse leads them into alcoholism, violent behaviour and seeking cheap sex to fill the void left by the father’s folly.
But to decide to chart a different path from your father’s requires a higher cognitive ability to forgive the old man and to learn from his wrongs.
My peers, those with a basic university degree and those who aspire to a quiet middle-class life are doing things differently: Most are opposed to violence against women. Most love their children and lately, the sex of the child is not an issue, unlike in the past where giving birth to a daughter was deemed a sign of weakness in some cultures, like where I come from.
Certainly, my generation has been gifted with hindsight, unlike our fathers who grew up under the worst possible circumstances. Women of our generation are enlightened, know better and hardly want to settle for less. We are almost equal and many actually bring the bacon home.
Most women I have spoken to who grew up with abusive fathers always sympathise with what their mothers had to go through. And want to lead different lives: they are assertive, ambitious, keen to have their money and property, just in case a man goes beast mode on them. They expect us men to provide in the traditional sense, but they are not entirely dependent on men. They have backups in chamas, in churches as well as private and secret investments. Their ability to pull resources quickly, means they acquire a head start over their male counterparts.
Women learnt from the tribulations of their mothers and took charge of their lives. Many men never received guidance or the security of inheritance from our fathers and we stumble and falter a lot. We have hardly any role models to look up. Religious leaders lost their moral voice. Politicians have nothing to teach us, but to steal, grab and be stupid, generally.
Our fathers were born somewhere between the Second World War and during the struggle for independence from the British colonialist. They were too young to be victims of the British brutality but growing up with absentee parents took its toll on them. They went to school in the independent Kenya. School was designed to prime them up to work in factories and the corporate sector, a drastic change from the agrarian way of life, that they grew up under.
They grew up knowing that the place of women was in the kitchen. They grew up knowing that children were merely a source of labour.
After the independence of Kenya, the world was gripped in a meaningless Cold War that consumed another 30 years of neo colonialism with different actors. The Cold War period gave birth mediocre and cognitively challenged dictators, propped up to oversee several countries. They suppressed freedoms, especially academic freedom. Anyone who subscribed to a contra ideology to that of the paymasters’ paid the ultimate price. In late 70s and early 1980s, a collective of university intellectuals were forced into exile. They included reputable scholars like Ngugi wa Thiong’o (ironically settling in the Capitalist West, when he was accused of being a socialist), Micere-Mugo, Korwa Adar, James Ogude, Nixon Kariithi, Job Kibii among others. They left a huge intellectual gap that was filled with cowardly conformists.
So, our fathers grew up suppressed and repressed. By the time they were coming of age, President Moi had taken over and an attempted coup had turned him into him a dictator who ushered in a totalitarian chapter. The impact of living in a one-party regime turned our fathers into cowardly, insular and extremely selfish individuals with self-enrichment as the only goal. They have a zero sense of accountability and responsibility whatsoever. They are guided by base instincts, hardly proactive but very reactive to any perceived threat to their dominance. They want to grab all the land, even riparian zones. They have mismanaged public institutions raiding coffers and channeling the loot to private facilities they own, to profit from the provision of essential services such as education, health and security. They lack is a sense of the future, which defies logic.
Why do they steal so much?
Why the common excuse of “ni watoto tunatafutia.”( I steal for my children)?
I am not mad at the generation. For they are blind and severely handicapped due to the circumstances they grew up under. But I still habour some resentment. They fouled and soiled their children who inherited the bad habit of greed and cast aside the brilliant ideas capable of transforming Kenya.
Their time at the top of the food chain has been nothing but disastrous and the ramifications will affect us, at least for the next three decades. Think of the foreign debt, the unprecedented level of corruption that make the Moi and the Kibaki regime seem incompetent in their corruption. Look at what they are doing to higher education (lecturers have been on strike for 10 months in the last one year). The health sector is in shambles. The main referral public hospital Kenyatta is always in the news for all wrong reasons. Hospitals in the rural parts of Kenya no longer stock basic medical supplies like anti-venom. The agriculture sector has no remedy in sight for the armyworm invasion ravaging maize fields around the country. Farmers no longer receive subsidized fertilizers yet well-connected individuals can always import maize from Mexico overnight. Need I mention the pain and agony of sugar cane farmers.
I see young people embracing their responsibilities differently. Men from the 1980s, aided by the power of social media to reunite friends are forming high school WhatsApp groups and visiting their former schools, organizing to donate books, build facilities and give back in whatever way they can.
We understand the importance of philanthropy and the value of altruism. We recognize there is something bigger than ourselves, or our families. The need to leave the world, a better place. We are planting trees where the baby boomers cut them down for development or settlement.
We question things. We do not blindly support regimes. When we think our political leader has erred we tell him off, such as we did with Raila Odinga recently. His latest handshake moment has met a lot of hostility. When Moses Kuria’s loose mouth utters something vile, we clap back.
Where the baby boomers and Gen Xers choose silence, we raise our voice, even as police brutality has become increasingly sanctioned. I remain hopeful that our generations and young people will get it right as the baby boomers and Gen Xers age and leave us alone.
AND GOD RESTED ON THE SEVENTH DAY: Faith as a tense truce in an African reality
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.
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.
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.
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
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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