A stuck story is like a baby who does not want to be born; keeping you in a long painful state of labour. Now I understand what Maya Angelou meant when she said, ‘There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.’
This is all I have.
My words, my stories. I sit with them in the mornings; I eat them for dinner. My nightmares are letters falling over me in torrents ready to swallow me. I rock in my chair afraid of them but they are all I have – I love them.
I started seeing the letters, ‘circa 1994’, when my Russian mother and Kenyan father had had a ferocious argument in our Nairobi home. My mother managed to tramp away.
She was always determined to walk away but she never really left. It was a habit. A couple of weeks later we would do it all over again.
Anyhow, as I cling to her, my father comes to the vehicle, a little yellow Volkswagen, and starts to pull me out. My mother wrestles to keep me in. Like a tug of war, I swung back and forth, to and fro; it did not even matter that it hurt me and I was wailing. They each needed to have their way. Which side I eventually landed on was no longer of essence. My spirit stayed haunted in between.
I clearly remember it was a sunny day and while I swung side to side the memory of the rays shifting with my movement as I helplessly gazed to the sky gave me hope. I love sunny days and this is a very important thing to note in this particular story.
Those who fought the fight feel the sting of history and justify why they have to protect a way of being. For me, it all seemed futile, for eventually they both died by 2003, when I thirteen. What was the point?
See, a few months after I was in Migori burying my father. They called me the mzungu child of Nyangi, the special one, named after his mother, Boke. I was a sweet girl the colour of honey, they said – and that’s what Boke meant – Honey. That was my identity.
But a few months later I was in Krasnodar, South of Russia, a new person in the thick of winter, burying my mother who had finally walked away from my dead father, for it was until death do us apart. Neither died peacefully. By extension neither could I live peacefully.
The only thing worse than regret is an untold story that didn’t die with the dead.
How did they die? The short version is they killed each other. The long version is my father’s kidneys failed and 5 years down the line he gave in. He was resilient I must say. He kept saying he was dying when struck with pain and nausea every few days. So every morning I would wake up to confirm. He was always still there. I called him the dying man who refused to die. It took 5 years! My mother – that is the difference between them – she wanted to live, she thought she would live- a faith born out of desperation. But the cancer ate her until there was barely anything left. Had I not known she was my mother all through, I would not have recognized her.
That is how my identity struggled: one side of it was dying but would not die, the other wanted to live but could not. Duality! Which identity wanted to live? Teenagers have lots of questions too and that’s what I started asking myself.
But this is what happened. A third dimension came in. My brother and I moved back to Kenya from the south of Russia.
Why? Because the stereotypical Russian enjoys his alcohol and my drunken uncle was becoming a nuisance (RIP to him too by the way). The fear of forgetting fights the fear of remembering. I remember the morning we woke up and dressed for school -my brother and I. We sat across each other on the small kitchen table. We stared at each other and communicated with our silence. We had no food. There was one small biscuit and about a third of a cup of milk. Being the elder one, I broke the biscuit into two halves and gave him the bigger one. We each took a few sips of the leftover milk and, still silently, went to school.
A missionary Catholic Church in Nairobi took us in by virtue of the long hours my mother of desperate faith spent in the chapel those last years. Looking back, I suppose a sense of kinship for a white woman struggling in an African country played a role. Aha! By then I was 14. I got accustomed to the way of the Catholic Church: balanced meals “Buon Appetitos”, proper use of cutlery, elbows on the table when you eat, modesty, hush hush tones, a short siesta in the weekend afternoon, church bells at vespers …
I joined school. Murmurs started at the Catholic school. Jokes in class about my poor Kiswahili grammar, “tumsamehe Katya,” the teacher said.
“Her father is a priest but it’s a secret,” went another.
They say that girls often shut out the noise by studying harder and hence do better in school when in adverse situations. That was me. “The Russian girl is not only pretty, she’s smart too,” they said.
I became an observer, watching the world around me disintegrate from my essence then come back together, like a runaway wounded dog limping back to what it once called home, hoping to be accepted again, here in Kenya. It hurt to leave. It hurt to come back. It hurt to do it over and over again, battling my inner demons – they too had questions. Why are you still here? Who are you? Who is your father? Does he art in heaven?
I became a collector of multi identities, a product of othering; Almost Kenyan, Quite Russian, Daughter of a priest, Poor Swahili, Good grades and graces.
But what next? Well, next was Lent, 2004; a time to solemnly confess our sins, practice self-denial and turn the focus on building our spiritual lives. Mass held profound messages during these 40 days as we prepared for Easter, the resurrection of our good Lord, Jesus, the saviour. I was not diligent about fasting as a form of self-denial so I instead pledged to always have my homework neatly and promptly done. It did build my spiritual serenity not to disappoint my teachers.
“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven …,” read Father [Rafael] that Sunday.
His aging white face had lines of red capillaries showing through his translucent skin and his nose turned pink when he wanted to emphasise the sermon, staring into the congregation but looking at no one in particular. A momentary silence and then he closed by saying that our true riches were in heaven.
“The mass has ended, go in peace to serve and love the Lord,” closed padre.
I was bewildered by how humbled and fragile people became during mass. I mused at the experience of one woman. She was my sermon that day. I watched this woman, as she sat at the back – an impassive dark beauty. She robotically followed each ritual of the mass then left the church at the very instance of the close, a child tied to her back with a faded kanga and another whose hand she firmly held. She looked physically strong a hint of muscle in her arms. She also looked emotionally weary depicted by the ridges on her forehead and a nonchalant expression. Her pleasantly green apron dress was creased and a red scarf neatly wrapped her hair – she had put effort to make it to church and came looking the part. I wondered what more she could deny herself this Lent. I observed her as she hurriedly walked to the gate and disappeared round the corner as though she were an unwanted guest.
I wanted to run after her and ask her, ‘How do you do it? How do you find the strength to come here every distraught Sunday? How did you believe? Do you really believe?
I did not have the courage. I remained stiff, watching her fade away like a sunset, but faster.
I thought of how she stoically attended to her life that day. I thought of how her entire life, from our distance, was the virtue of self-denial. The church was the one place that ensured her of a waiting reward in heaven. Church was the one place where she could find glory in her poverty, find the sought assurance that the material world was just a passing horror; a test of our faith and the content and obedient will find favour.
I wondered: How far is heaven? Where is my faith? Where is my God? Why did I need to eat and drink the body and blood of Christ? Why did this woman have to give up wanting more for herself? Why did my life turn out this way? Was life just happening to me? Did I have a say in who I am?
And that was how by age 15, I ceased going to confession and the teenager in me overslept the morning mass, promising my caregivers that I would attend the evening one. I had one pending confession – I had lost my faith and with it my identity, long before this Lent.
As I had priests for fathers, I had access to a small library. I spent long hours in my extra time dissecting the ‘Who am I’ dilemma: Socrates, Aristotle, Epictetus the stoic, The African Bible. I read and I read and I wrote and I wrote – lost poems.
Lost because I feared someone would discover my deepest thoughts. I took my 300-paged notebook and soaked it in water- the one thing in my life that died a peaceful death.
Did I regret it? Yes. But remember what I said,
The only thing worse than regret is an untold story that didn’t die with the dead.
It was worse.
I could not sleep at night. I had dreams of my mother’s head and shoulders peeping through a cloud, wanting to live again. I smelt the varnish of coffins in my sleep and woke up in a cold sweat. I drenched my pillow with my deluge of tears. I dreamt of my father passing me in the streets of Nairobi as though as I was a stranger, only for us to look back at each other metres ahead. Never did I see them in the same dream. My mother’s spirit roamed the Ural Mountains and my father’s stood on the edge of gentle green hills of Isebania looking out to Tanzania, with his back to me.
My spirit lay haunted in between – 13,000 kms apart.
Socrates did not answer who I was. I went about the next decade complacently navigating life by the day, keeping to my few good friends who dared to see the insides of me and doing well in school. Books and words replaced my faith. Reading in the sun reminded me why I may have belonged here. That sun that gave me hope as I swung to and fro. That sun that set – I knew it would not leave me, it would return in the morning. That Kenyan sun.
In 2017, now 29, I sat in an Uber driving along the Southern Bypass as the driver initiated a conversation (probably for the sake of a good rating) on our infrastructure. He said, “Kenya is the best country if not for elections.” I consented and offered my usual “Indeed”. The amicable driver, perhaps in his early 40s then said, “Maybe a saviour will come, someone new and tribe-less accepted by everyone.” I never responded. I had long forgotten about religion and that kind of faith. I pondered on how likely it were. The last person of such vast influence was Jesus; no one was planning to replace him just yet.
Was I also waiting to be saved? I considered that perhaps he had a point – a new saviour! Was Jesus a redundant history over 80 percent of Kenya clang on to, the same way we cling onto failed families, failed identities and failed governments for lack of a divine alternative?
As he muttered on about our roads, my long-term relationship with his words conjured up a memory of Mzee Jomo Kenyatta talking about neo-colonialism in the idealistic days of the struggle, “I am amused by those who suggest that we cannot condemn something we have not seen or tasted.”
“Maybe we need to save ourselves,” I said, suddenly conscious, half-smiling, as I flipped through my social media feeds, scrutinising messages, careers, make-up and hair. The pressure to be a finished product was high. One had to be savvy, smart, beautiful, busy, in the gym at the some point (working out or taking selfies) and to claim an identity as a self-actualized individual. This god of image was becoming the alternative saviour.
When I was done with my errands that morning, my close friends and I headed out of town to escape the geopathic stress of the god of image who needed WiFi to thrive. We arrived at our destination when the sun was setting and the hills rolled on and on like sleeping giants guarding the tranquil Lake Naivasha. The Olerai trees glowed in the sunset light- everything was still and perfect; Kenya was perfect –the driver was right. The wide undisturbed landscapes still had a sense of longevity in them, lying in oblivion; tolerable because they were secluded, sans people – everyone was in Nairobi searching for their dream, having left behind the dream-like reality of the serene lake and the giants that would not wake any time soon.
How could God be anywhere else but here? How could I be anywhere else but here?
History causes hangovers. I was recovering from an inherited trauma. I remembered that sun as my parents pulled me to and fro. It was my hope. Here it was setting in front of me, and tomorrow I would see this sun of God again.
This is who I am.
This is where I rightfully belong.
This is my history.
This is my story.
“We are lost in the same song. We’re the same lost song”
Dust, Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor
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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