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WHAT WE NEVER SPEAK OF: Reflections of a Britain’s gulag survivor

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WHAT WE NEVER SPEAK OF: Reflections of a Britain’s gulag survivor

We are all born into the world of humanity at an ordained moment in time and space with a spiritual ordained mission yet we are the creators of our destiny. The world I came to was full of turmoil. My parents and their parents had been uprooted from their own homes to go serve settlers under very harsh conditions in the white highlands. I was born just before the end of the Second World War in Kamara, in Mau Summit. My father, who went to Sudan and afterwards Mozambique, told me that when he returned from World War II, he found a beautiful little girl born in his absence. The short sojourn between Sudan and Mozambique must have brought my conception. During her pregnancy, my mother felt like she was going to have a baby boy since she felt a boy in her womb. But instead of the boy she expected, I showed up. Before I was born, she had had five children, both male and female.

The End Of Childhood

With the aftermath of World War II, the battle for Kenya’s independence was now underway. My uncle Waweru, who was very involved in that battle was captured by the Brits and was sent to Manyani concentration camp, a death hole. He once told me that the beginning of the freedom war took place many years prior in the form of a secret movement. In the early forties, he was one of the organisers of “rika ria forty”, a very secretive oath taking movement. The movement comprised of young men and women who had sworn to take back their land which had been stolen by the white colonisers.

Read Also: THE BIBLE OR THE BULLET: Reclaiming My Redemption Song

He was also a teacher trained by the African Inland Mission in Kijabe but opted to go and teach in Gikuyu Independent Schools under the system “Gikuyu Karin`ga”. These schools had their own curriculum system based on African nationalism, religion, history and agriculture. I attended “Kiai Kia Ng`ondu” (nursery school) for two weeks where I learnt the history of my people. I learnt that I was an African and a Kikuyu girl. Soon after I started school, the British colonial government closed all the Gikuyu Karing’a schools and arrested and detained everyone who was involved in that education system and threw them into concentration camps. I still maintain that the reason they were closed was that the schools were teaching children how to liberate their minds from slavery and were developing their dignity as humans. I often wonder why after independence this type of education was not incorporated into the present day education system. We would have been better-oriented African Kenyan citizens for it, with that kind of self-knowledge based education.

From Heil Hitler To Hell

Originally, the area we lived in comprised of people from all parts of the country. There were Luos, Luhyas, Masaai, Kalenjin, some Ugandans, even a man from somewhere in the Coast. Soon after the closing of the schools, Kikuyu families were isolated from the other tribes. The Gikuyu were apportioned a separate piece of land to build their houses, far from the other tribes.

My father was an evangelist with the Africa Inland Mission posted in Kamara, before I was born. Because of that privilege, my older siblings got admission to a boarding school in Kijabe. One morning, after my mother and the other women had gone to fetch water, many trucks arrived. There were boarded trucks and flatbed open trucks lined up for half a mile. The soldiers jumped off the trucks, ran towards us and started whipping people and herding them towards the trucks. There was fear and pandemonium as we got onto the trucks. They took us to Molo concentration camp. My father had already left that day for his evangelical work hence he was not there when the trucks arrived and for years, we would not know where he was or what had happened to him. My older siblings were in school thus they were saved from the fate that begot the rest of us. My immediate older sister, my younger sister, and my baby infant sister only a few weeks old and I were in the truck with my mother. I was not yet 12 and already I was a detainee.

Of Auschwitz, Dachau And Molo

The Concentration camps were typically built in a clinical style. It was a field enclosed by mesh fences about 10 metres high. On the outside of the camp were a series of razor wires, each about a metre high. On the inside of the fence was another layer of razor wire, about a metre high. After the razor wire was a barbed wire fence, about ten metres high. After the barbed wire were 1-metre high poles. On those poles, there was a wire interlinking them. At given intervals on the poles were signboard warnings – if you touch or pass the wire that is towards the fences you will be shot. There was a watchtower with an armed soldier and floodlights at intervals. The pit latrines were open roofed and near the watchtower so the guards would monitor us so we would not be tempted to dig escape tunnels under the latrines.

There were also U shaped dorms built on the inner perimeter of the fence. At the centre was an open field, which had two purposes: it was where lorries dropped the incoming detainees and also where the head count was conducted on everyone in the camp, including children and the sick. After the head count, the detainees had to go through another gate to the stores for the food ration of maize meal and beans. For years, that is all we ate. Maizemeal and beans.

We went every day to get our rations after the headcount. If one missed going through they would not eat that day. The adults were sent to labour while the children were left at the camp. Many people and even more children died from disease and malnourishment. I was so traumatised that I was constantly sick and frequently hospitalised.

When I had the opportunity to watch the 1987 British television film – Escape From Sobibór – about the German concentration camps during WWII, I could not see the difference of those German camps and the British concentration camps in Kenya.

We stayed in Molo for more than a year then one day we were hauled in trucks and we were moved to an even worse concentration camp in Gilgil town. It was situated where the present police station is. We were there for another year or so.

More deaths occurred. The body count of children grew. More torture, more punishment, more men and women died. Death was constant. It was every day and it was all around. It had become our new normal. My baby sister learned to walk in a concentration camp. My mother did what she could to keep us alive, but it was often no more than a narrow escape from an ever-present death.

The African Inland Mission Eldama Ravine had informed the Kijabe headquarters of our detention and the mission sent a search party to look for its evangelists and their families. They finally received word that we were in Gilgil. They made the necessary interventions so that we could be released into their care. We began what was known as a screening process. The screening was designed to repatriate people to their homelands. We were on the move again, from one screening post to another, ending in Shura, Kiambu, now just a village before the Kikuyu bypass. From there, we were transported to the Kijabe mission station.

We Are Together Again, Just Praising The Lord

The missionaries and colonial government were two arms of one body. Education of the African was designed to prepare Africans to serve the white man. My father told me he was lured to Thogoto Church Missionary Society School as a young man. There were promises of education and more. When he finished at Thogoto, he was sent to Jinn School by the Thogoto (Scottish) missionaries (where the site of the now Mary Leakey School for Girls is) in Lower Kabete to learn how to bake and work in a kitchen. He had no choice. You got what you were informed you got. After completing his course, my father went on to the African Inland Mission in Kijabe, in order to continue his education. It was the Kijabe missionaries who had posted the newly trained evangelist to the Hemphill estate in Mau Summit. His task was to evangelise and to serve his master.

My father was a head chef at the Hemphill estate which must have been thousands of acres, a sub-county. There were well over 100 homesteads of workers each with wives and children. He and his fellow workers used to bake a lot of bread, cakes and other wheat items, especially at Christmas time. You cannot believe how much milk, butter, cream, wheat, hay and meat used to be sent to Britain. Whey (mathaci/machache) from milk was taken to the farm workers every evening. There were over 100 homesteads of workers each with children. I would collect about 2 litres of whey every evening when it was my turn to collect it. We liked it – it was very nice with ugali. At this point in time of course, those days were a distant memory of another lifetime. The Concentration camp experience had ended that.

We were released on Christmas day in 1954. Those who met us settled us and generously gave beds, bedding, clothes, food and utensils to my mother and her four little girls including my baby sister who was now just under three years old. We were happy to find our older siblings alive and together. We were almost complete but not quite.

We still did not know where our father was. We were worried because when the coloniser took men away, they rarely ever came back. Our mother settled us as much as she could, but it was not easy. A few months after our arrival in Kijabe, my mother was called by the head of the mission station and was told that they have found out which concentration camp her husband was taken. What remained was to fill documents so that he could be handed over to the mission since they had sent him to evangelise at the A W Hemphill estate. Our father was home by Christmas 1955. He never spoke of where he had been or his experiences.

Someni Vijana, Muongeze Pia Bidii

In Kijabe, the family was together and we all went back to school. I joined class one at Kijabe primary school in 1955. That gap of not going to school had created a hunger and a purpose studying hard through the twelve years of that British system. The system comprised of four years before common entrance examinations, another 4 years before the Kenya African Primary Education Certificate, another four years before the Cambridge school certificate, two years for the higher certificate and then, for those lucky and rich enough, college or vocational training. Then it was teaching or nursing. We walked to school barefoot, carrying a stone slate mounted on a wooden frame, with a special pen. One had to have a special permit to wear shoes and even with the permit; shoes were too rare, too expensive and too precious to wear to school.

We sat on long wooden benches and stored our lunch in a corner of the stone classroom. The education system was designed to eliminate young Africans. The grading system involved a forced curve grading which meant that in the years where students had passed well, their marks were regraded so fewer would progress. I did not repeat a grade and always got one of the few passes available. We had experienced so many traumas that we held on to one another with a true feeling of belonging and worked extra hard.

Free At Last… 

I remember the time Kenya got her independence. I was so happy. Whenever I see the clip of the British flag being brought down and the Kenyan flag being hoisted, I still well up with tears of joy. It was overwhelming. This is a whole story on its own, but I can tell you, it was like reaching the Promised Land. I remembered the camps, the children who died, the men and women who were killed and starved and tortured to give us Uhuru.

My greatest moment was when independence was declared as it abolished forced curve grading, shoe licences and the need to get a pass to visit my sister, who lived far away. I had had the chance to visit her in Murang’a, during colonial times after obtaining a special passbook in order to see her. We even needed a passbook to leave the Kijabe mission station even if it was to go to the nearest shops in Kimende town, 8 km away.

My parents both lived to see independence and to see their grandchildren. My mother passed away in her eighties around 1979 but our father stayed on until he was one hundred and seven in 2003. All of his contemporaries and younger siblings had long left the world of humanity before he did.

To My Grandchildren

My country is perfect. It is all right. There is nothing wrong with it. My country is beautiful, it is resourceful. It is only occupied by people who are brainwashed by a foreign colonial ideology.

When I see the ethnic conflict in the present, it makes me sad because of the knowledge that this is a devil planted in our country by the coloniser with the aim of making Africans hate one another for power and material gain. Then it was the white coloniser, today it is our brothers who have occupied the role of the coloniser. Do not be surprised by our people who still send our country’s resources to the west to fulfil the desire of that demon whose power Kenyans are yet to overcome to date. Why? Because the Kenyan society has avoided addressing the psychological effects of colonisation.

The poorest families in our land are those whose parents fought in the war of independence or those who had no opportunity to take on senior offices or political positions. Jua Kali inventions in our land are thrown out of the window so that we can import instead of encouraging and nurturing our young inventors. Did the coloniser bewitch us? How can you steal national wealth and give it to the very entity that diminishes your existence as a human? Many of our leaders and administrators have been to the west and seen how they treat blackness, like trash! Until we begin believing in God, who is the Innovator, the all-Knowing and respect our ancestry, we shall remain where we are – food for the enemy. Lazima tuheshimu our Africanism, Our Creator and our ancestors who left us soil, forest and unsurpassable wildlife. For those who empty the national coffers and send it to your evil master coloniser, for Kenya to remain in a pathetic economic state of affairs, this is your warning: You will die leaving an evil legacy to your lineage. Truthfully, it is sad that I live in a beautiful Kenya with this kind of mentality.

I wish we would realise our worth as Africans, which is not less than other races on the planet. My prayer and desire is that we would wake up and claim the glory of who we are. We have bottled this evil in our hearts long enough. It needs to be addressed in a therapeutic manner, recapitulation.

My children, realise that you are Africans. Not less than any other human being on the planet. What my fellow Kenyans are missing is respect for themselves as themselves. Know that you are a wonderful creation with great abilities. That whatever you desire will be yours, as long as you create it in loving kindness to benefit all humanity. Rise up Kenyans who love this nation of ours, God will bless your efforts.

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Wanjiku Mirye is a retired trainer, speaker. She was born at the end of the Second World War and grew up during the war for independence of Kenya. Widowed in her twenties, she chose to raise her children as a single parent while working within the church organizations. She celebrates being Kenyan and has a deep belief in the power of owning and celebrating that which is great about our land, our potential, ourselves as Africans.

Reflections

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Reflections

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beyond the Numbers

Read: Beyond the Numbers series

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Reflections

EARTH AND RUST: The decline of a Kenyan town

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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