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THE RUNNING KING: Is Eliud Kipchoge the greatest of all time?

The power of Eliud’s humility emerges like a gust of hot air from an open sauna door, yet he is under no illusion of the weight of his celebrity. By OYUNGA PALA

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THE RUNNING KING: Is Eliud Kipchoge the greatest of all time?

It has been 11 days since Eliud Kipchoge broke the World marathon record in Berlin, Germany. We are at Eldoret Sports Club, a convoy of vehicles is assembling to take him for a grand homecoming of the running king in Eldoret town centre. Eliud is lean, sinewy and nondescript in casual clothes. He wears a dark polo shirt, running shoes and a branded cap.

He stands, a lonesome figure watching the proceedings. With the vast Eldoret Sports Club fields behind him, he is like a pensive groom psyching himself amidst the fuss at his own wedding. Eliud is not big on the fanfare. When he broke the world record, he sneaked back into Eldoret, almost unnoticed. But as the brand ambassador of Isuzu East Africa, he knows that he has to go through the paces of being a sport celebrity. Today he recieves a brand new double cabin pick up. Eliud is keenly aware that he belongs to the people of Nandi, Uasin Gishu, the Kalenjin Nation, Kenya and to the world of sport.

His words are measured. His tone of voice low, and demands the rapt attention of a congregant in the presence of a respected padre. Sports journalists have warned of Eliud’s crisp responses and his zen-like presence that deflates the exuberance of an eager interviewer seeking easy sound bites.

The previous evening at the 64 bar, Eliud had met a party of event organizers who briefed him on the next day’s proceedings. 64 is a decently designed sports bar with a series of private enclosures that surround an open area with a large drop down screens just like a sports arena. The lead organiser Dancan Muhindi had warned that Eliud is a stickler for time. We arrived 15 minutes late to find him seated alone in one of the cubicles ordering a cup of tea.

To say Eliud is humble is an understatement. The power of Eliud’s humility emerges like a gust of hot air from an open sauna door, yet he is under no illusion of the weight of his celebrity. As a consumate professional, he treats all who seek his attention with a measure of respect that demands reciprocation. Dancan runs him through the elaborate programme and he raises no concerns. Caleb the PR liason, warns him of the Kenyan media obssession with race earnings. “The money question is going to come up because the local press have not spoken to you post Berlin.”

He brushes off the concern as he smiles assuredly. “It is more about performance, not money”.

Eliud holds a PhD in the art of maintaining a low profile. Even in his home town Eldoret, he cuts such an ordinary presence running his errands unnoticed. When prodded by BBC journalist Lynne Wachira about the absence of any celebration after his return from Berlin, he replies nonchalantly, “ The best celebration moment was when I crossed the finish line”. 30 plus million Kenyans celebrated his win. That was enough. There was no need to stretch the festivities. He finds the razzmatazz off putting, “Celebrations can be distracting. I try to control those thoughts so that they do not interfere with my training”.

At 10 am at the Eldoret Sports Club, Eliud hops onto the back of a screaming red Isuzu Momo pick up. With raised suspension and high profile tyres towering above the rest of the cars in the convoy, Eliud’s small frame, is akin to a man riding an elephant through the streets. A police outrider with a blue flickering light, leads the convoy as it snakes into Eldoret’s mid-morning town centre traffic.

People stop to stare at the raised car in the middle of the convoy trying to make out the fuss. A man in the lead pick up screams into his microphone like a town crier, “There he is, the one in the dark blue T-shirt, the one you have seen on your screens, the champion of the world, Honourable Eliud Kipchoge”. Crowds stare, for even in Eldoret, the land of champions, Eliud is not instantly recognizable. The car that Eliud rides atop of is initially getting more attention than the champion himself.

As the caravan enters Eldoret’s town centre, a group of women in aprons, arranging empty maize sacks burst into a spontaneous cheer. Eliud smiles brightly and gives them a thumbs up sign. Drivers and passengers lean out of their windows, trying to catch a glance of the figure causing a traffic jam. Slowly, people start to recognise him and petrol station attendants, boda boda riders, watchmen and market loaders, run to the edge of the street to greet the King of the road. Camera phones are trained on him, Eliud just smiles and waves gently, trying to acknowledge those who shout out his name with full eye contact. Even riding ostentiously in a showy car, the sense of his humility is apparent.

Humility is a family trait, confirms his older brother Wilson. Eliud is only bullish during a marathon race contest where his victory is predetermined and he bursts to the front like the bossman he is, leading from gun to tape while racing against the clock.

The caravan returns to Eldoret Sports Club after about an hour of raising a ruckus in Eldoret town centre at times bringing it to a standstill. In tow, is a multitude of friends, admirers, county heads, ordinary Kenyans and a small group of street boys who ran alongside the convoy in delight all the way to the club from town, a distance of 2kms.

Eldoret Sports Club, comprises a single colonial building, painted white with a streak of blue that stares out at rugby, football, volleyball and cricket pitches. The club was started in 1930 as a space for white privilege and it still stands defiant as a British colonial relic. It contains a snooker room and the sign to the toilets is still labelled ‘cloak rooms’. A legacy of sports that was white as its exterior walls, has faded. Club rugby and cricket died in Eldoret by the late 90s as athletics rose like a phoenix to rule supreme.

A comedic MC keeps the gathering lively as a host of guests speakers heap praises on Eliud’s accomplishments. When Eliud eventually gets up to speak, the gathering laughs as soon as he says he going to give a short speech. He is man of few words in a literal sense. His keynote address is sub 3 minutes. He is generous in his gratitude to his sponsors for the gift of a new car, to his family for their support but he laces his short speech with his now hallmark wisdom quotes.

“Champions do not become champions when they win an event”.

He is sharing the moment and stage with his athletic family, those broad shoulders he stood on to reach dizzy heights. When Eliud trains, he is only one among a gang of up to 30 elite runners. There might only be room for one winner on the podium but it takes a team to produce a champion.

“100 per cent of myself is nothing compared 1 per cent of the whole team.”

Over 20 Elite athletes representing three decades of distance running excellence are in attendance. A number who hail from Eliud’s Nandi County. The most recognisable are Ezekiel Kemboi 3000m steeplechase Olympic gold medalist popular for his cartoonish celebratory dance antics and Glady Cherono, the Berlin marathon women’s three time champion. The rest of the company is also world class. They are either Olympic medalists or world marathon and cross country champions.

The achievement list of this cast could run a few pages long. Richard Limo, Valentine Kipketer, Hilary Sambu, Meshack Koech, Philemon Rono, Sally Kipyiego, Anthony Maritim, Amos Kipruto, Laban Korir, Mike Kigen, Geoffrey Kamworor, Conseslus Kipruto, Augustine Choge, Emmanuel Korir, Brimin Kipruto, Elijah Lagat and Patrick Sang. They are Eliud’s extended family in more ways than one.

Seated on the high table is Eliud’s coach and mentor, Patrick Sang who won silver medals in all World 3000m majors and his assistant, Coach Richard Meto who predicted Eliud breaking the World Record after his winning performance at 2017 Berlin marathon. Elijah Lagat who won the Berlin marathon in 1997 and the Boston marathon in 2000, helped Eliud get his first passport.

Augustine Choge, the 3000m Junior World Record holder describes Eliud as a fatherly figure even though he is only two years his junior. Brimin is his training partner and calls him a brother. Geoffrey Kamworor proclaims Eliud as his mentor. He wore Eliud’s shoes for good luck and won the World Cross Country Half Marathon in 2017. Gladys Cherono describes Eliud a village mate.

But it is Patrick Sang whose fate is seemingly entwined with Eliud’s. Eliud’s mother was Sang’s nursery school teacher and they hail from the same Kapsisiywa village. Sang talks about Eliud like a proud father. He recalls Eliud’s humble beginnings. He remembers a persistent young man, who would ask for his training programmes. Eliud kept returning months later after implementing the programme and demanding a new one. Sang would forget who the adamant young man was. “And who are you?” he would demand, and the polite Eliud would reply, “ I am the one you gave the training programme to, and I won the nationals. Now I want you to train me. I am also your neighbour back home”.

In 2002, Patrick Sang and Eliud begun the journey that would lead to the world record after joining Sang at the Global Sports Management camp in Kaptagat. It is for this reason Sang describes Eliud as a visionary, a man with the uncanny ability to dream up an audacious future and put in the work to achieve his dreams. Patrick Sang was a three time silver medalist in world majors never winning gold. Elijah Lagat reckons that Eliud, like a good son, has became what his athletic father was meant to be.

What’s in a name. Eliud’s mother, Janet Rotich, gave her youngest child the name Eliud, a Christian name from the bible, mentioned in the Gospel of Matthew. It means God is my praise. In the science of numerology, people named Eliud have a deep inner desire to lead. The destiny analysis of the name Eliud is packed with virtues. Wise. Firm. Destined to be rich. Resilient. Pragmatic.

The name Kipchoge among the Nandi people of Kalenjin means, of (prefix Kip) the granary(choge). Janet Rotich claims no special premonition for choosing that name. He was not named after his famous namesake who also hails from Nandi county. The illustrious Kipchoge Keino was the first of the great runners that Kenya has produced. A two-time world record holder, Kipchoge dramatically won the 1968 Mexico Olympic gold in the 1500m race leading by 20 metres. Suffering from gallstones, he ran 2 miles to the Olympic stadium after his bus got stuck in traffic, registered just in time and carried the gold. Kipchoge Keino was the greatest distance runner of his time and if truly a name contains symbolic power, the name Kipchoge could not have landed on a more appropriate heir.

In the year 1984, when Eliud was born, Steve Jones from the UK held the marathon world record at 2:08:05. In 2003 as an 18-year-old Eliud announced his presence to the athletic world in 5000m in Paris IAAF championships. He upset world champs and favourites Hicham El Guerrouj and Kenenisa Bekele. In that same year, his country man, 34-year-old Paul Tergat broke the world marathon record in Berlin with a time of 2:04:55. Sixteen years later,Eliud Kipchoge would break this world record in Berlin also two months short of his 34th birthday.

Eliud says, “No human is limited”. He should know for he has spent his career shattering the glass ceiling of limits. Conseslus Kipruto, the reigning Olympic and World champion in the steeplechase is a witness to Eliud’s phenomenal spirit. “When Eliud says he will deliver, he delivers”. It all depends on what you choose to believe about human limitations. Perhaps a hint on how Eliud makes the impossible a reality can be found in a quote from a book that left a lasting impression on him titled “ Who moved my Cheese” by Spencer Johnson. “ What would you do if you weren’t afraid?”

But the motivational business fable only scratches the surface of Eliud’s spirit. Maybe some clues can be found in Nelson Mandela’s favourite poem Invictus by William Henley that ends with these powerful lines, “ I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul”.

Running is a mental sport, and talent is nothing without mental fortitude. Eliud knew he was going to break the world record at the 30km mark at 1:26. This is because he had run that race countless times in his mind and in training. “You can only run what you have run in training”.

Eliud has been watering his tree of discipline for two decades now. I recall a quote that I had read in a feature article where he says “Discipline equals freedom.” He tells me with an uncharacteristic seriousness bordering on irritation of a teacher reprimanding a student for missing the obvious truth of a repeated lesson. “It is not just discipline. It is self discipline. That means going against your impulses. Don’t be a slave to your impulses. Then you are free”. That self discipline has produced 9 marathon wins out of 10 and a world record.

What next after 2:01:39 in Berlin? Is it time for retirement like Usain Bolt? Those who know Eliud intimately like Patrick Sang and Augustine Choge state without the slightest hestitation that we are yet to see the best of him. During the Nike Sub 2 marathon attempt, he missed the mark by a mere 25 seconds. On his Facebook cover page banner is the time 1:59:59 and it stares at us like the audacity of hope.

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Oyunga Pala is a Kenyan newspaper columnist.

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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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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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