1. “Sap? Ahh in full pls? Yohhh I’m legit outttttt.”— Sandra, 23.
I spent Mashujaa Day in a gallery in Kibera. Every Saturday, the gallery, Maasai Mbili, has poetry readings, and I, together with a friend, had gone for one of these. When we got there, we found one of the regulars talking about his shujaas. First, my mother, he said, because it wasn’t easy raising a person like me. We nodded, and someone in the room said that all mothers are heroes. He went on. Next, Moi, because he led the country well, and presided over the economy well, unlike other presidents.
I’ve been thinking a lot about this sentiment, this feeling that Moi was good for the economy, and that any disruptions to the economy were due to foreign malcontents. Rasna Warah has written about this, the sanitization of Daniel Moi into a kindly old man who held the country together. I’ve also been thinking about the whitewashing of history that led to information about Moi’s economic incompetencies being hidden away from generations of children who were not alive at the time, or too young to remember. I’m also thinking about SAPs, and how their knowledge is not part of the histories of a certain generation.
2. “So, I don’t really know what SAPs are, but I’ve heard them in conversation. They are important, they keep us in check. They are like a ‘learning point.’ They teach a man how to fish and he won’t ever grow hungry again. The fuel increase is one way SAPs have affected us. Don’t know any other…I don’t think it’s an everyday conversation, unless it’s something you are aware about/interested in and you have like minded people to discuss it with.” — Sabina, 26
I am unable to remember Moi as president. My memory of politics begins with Danson Mungatana telling Raila, “Kama yeye anakula samaki wa Lake Victoria, mwambie mimi nakula mamba za River Tana.” Moi, for me, exists as a distant event, like the Mau Mau and Patrice Lumumba and the extension of the Lunatic Express to Port Florence in 1901; events that happened, and were important to our histories, but which I never encountered directly.
A few years ago, when I was preparing to join campus, my parents and I had a conversation about their campus experiences. Back when my father had been doing his BSc and his subsequent MSc, he had been the recipient of a monthly government stipend. Every month, he told me, the government would deposit money into their accounts for their general upkeep. For my father, who was a child of the city, the child of middle class parents, this payout meant that he enjoyed a measure of independence from his parents. My mother, on the other hand, came for a large family whose patriarch had died early in her life, and whose matriarch was a single uneducated woman living in the village. For her, this payout meant that she could pay for her younger sisters’ school fees. A few years after they were done with campus, as part of the Structural Adjustment Programmes of the late 80s and early 90s, these stipends for campus students were halted. The wanton kleptocracy and naive economics of Moi’s government meant that decades later, we would have to go through campus by our own means, or face the weight of student loans.
3. “Yeah, I don’t know what SAPs are…No, why would I bother with them? All I know is we are being forced to celebrate a dictator who killed people.” — Nyasetia, 23.
As part of my thinking about Moi, I’ve been thinking about SAP’s, what they are, and what they represented. Ngala Chome writes about growing up in Kisauni in the 90s, and about how the implementation of the SAPs ravaged his community. For them, kids born at the turn of the Cold War years, “the tumultuous period of the 1990s reared its ugly head when the colour of ugali turned from white to yellow; when teachers stopped showing up for class; and when trips to the shop to get candles became more frequent.”
My parents got married during this period of the yellowing of ugali. We often rewatched the VHS tape of their wedding and, for years, it, together with Holes and The Gods Must Be Crazy were my favorite audio-visual experiences. That is, until I discovered Hillary Ng’weno’s The Making of a Nation. In a 2011 interview, Chacha Mwita, who was the managing editor of The Standard newspaper when government functionaries raided their offices, described Ng’weno as “one of those people without whom you cannot understand Kenyan journalism.”
4. “Bana, mimi nilimaliza tu shule…Ni kitu nishawaisoma mahali, though I don’t have much info about it.” — Nigel, 22.
How do you make a nation? How are the stories of a nation made? Who makes a nation? Do the stories of a nation make themselves? And after the stories of a stories are made, who makes them disappear? What are the stories of a nation? What came first, the stories or the nation?
5. “What I know about SAPs is that they were a program initiated by the World Bank in the 90s in Kenya, and I think some other African countries, when there was an economic crisis, to kind of ‘streamline’ spending in the country…I’ve tried asking my parents about this…but they give very avoidant answers that say a lot without explaining anything really.” — Hilda, 24.
Moi’s destruction of the Kenyan economy was not the dominant event in the global economy in the 1990s. Around the same time when ugali was turning yellow, the Russian economy was being gobbled up by a group of Russian robber barons. While Mikhail Gorbachev’s envisioning of the perestroika might have been altruistic, he was unable to understand what ‘opening up the economy’ would mean to the average Russian citizen who was either unable or unwilling to take part in the strongest-in-the-jungle catfight that would follow. Or, they had not read the History of Kenya and the 1970s opening up of the country’s economy recommended by the Ndegwa Commission on Public Structure and Remuneration that would lead to an oligarch class before the oligarchy.
In his book, Not Yet Uhuru, Oginga Odinga famously dismisses Daniel Moi, describing him as “…influenced by the missions, overawed by settler power, and making a slow adjustment to political trends and the need to make independent judgement.” It was this type of dismissive attitude that led cynics to dismiss Moi as a passing cloud when he ascended to the presidency, and later, to postulate to the argument that he had done his best with the little resources he had, mental or otherwise. I do not know how accurate Oginga’s assessment of Moi was. I’ll add it to the list of things I know not.
6. “I don’t know what these are…I have heard of it but I don’t know what they are.” — Anita, 19.
Things I know not: How it was to grow up in the SAP-afflicted economy of 90s Kenya; whether Danson Mungatana actually does eat mamba za River Tana or whether he was just beating stories; how the stories of a country are made, and who makes them; how J.M. Kariuki, one of the original robber barons, came to be described as a maker of a nation; what a nation is; whether they were on a break; whether the future history of Kenya will be written to say that the current robber barons in charge of Kenya did what they could with the economy, and that the economy collapsing the way it is was the fault of malicious foreign malcontents who were trying to spoil Kenya; and why Awilo Mike and Riziki split up.
7. “No idea.” — Paul, 22.
When I was in class eight, my school decided that, to motivate us, it would give class eight students milk. Everyday, at 3.10, on trays placed in the corridors outside our classes, we would each pick a glass of milk. We knew, of course, that the milk was useless with regards to our KCPE performance. After all, what was the use of milk if the school decided that we ought to stop attending classes? What was the use of milk if it was the only form of nutrition we got because our broke parents were unable to put food on the table because they had lost their jobs? Wasn’t the free milk just a vanity project if, because of programs brought on by kleptocracy and economic incompetence, healthcare and education were unreachable and expensive? Still, we drank our milk, because it was to keep us motivated enough to do well in our exams. However, a few days into the milk program, it was cancelled and we were switched to juice. Turns out the school had been buying expired milk.
THE COLONIAL STATE, AUSTERITY AND “MIDDLE CLASS” ANGST: An insiders perspective
This short film by Amina Bint Mohamed, and featuring activist Aimee Ongeso, explores the concerns and challenges of the so-called ‘middle class’, a demographic whose definition is contested and whose security is precarious. Unemployment, a high cost of living, and commercialized social services make it nearly impossible to ‘live one’s best life’. Though the blame is often put on poor financial literacy, Ongeso says the buck stops with the state – and she reflects on the strategies that families like hers are using to survive these hard times, and disappointments they navigate, while recognizing that the problems they face emanate from the exploitative colonial nature of the Kenyan state.
NAIROBBERY: City of Injustice, City of Grief
Prior to being let go from the most promising job I’d ever gotten, I’d entertained the idea that maybe I was somehow safe. But when the news was broken to me over a static-laced WhatsApp call from the mdosi, I barely reacted.
‘Do you have anything to say?’ he asked.
‘Is this decision final?’ I responded.
‘Yes, it is.’
‘Then I have nothing more to say.’
An awkward silence reigned the conference room and eventually I left them to whatever else they needed to settle. I walked to my desk, broke the news to my family and started looking for a new job. It’s now been four months. I am yet to work in an office again.
I was almost 25 when I was technically fired. Each day that passed without a response to my job applications felt like a tightening noose.
Others who have been through the same – and it appears as though anyone with ambition has gone through this – told me, ‘Relax. These things happen. Enjoy this moment.’
That’s the problem. What’s to be enjoyed when there’s no money to leave the house? Eventually the stress of job seeking began to suffocate me, an unseen persisting pressure pushing my mind further and further to that inevitable pop. It once got so bad that a friend figured that the best way to comfort me was to show me how many other people had survived my situation.
‘Even Oprah was fired,’ she exclaimed. But that’s about the only thing some of us will ever have in common with Oprah.
Job seeking in Kenya right now seems to be an extreme sport. One where only the resilient or downright lucky get to win. For some, getting a job is a straightforward affair. Graduate, intern, employee, retire. For others it gets a bit more creative. One friend of mine said you only need three key things, ‘Looks, manners and connections.’
I thought it a bit shallow. She disagreed.
‘Looking good is one step in the right direction. When you’re presentable, the world is your canvas. That’s why the world’s best conmen are also the best dressed. The moment you look good, it gets easier to insert yourself in groups. Once you do that, you can get connections anywhere.’
The logic in it couldn’t be denied. Looking good is its own reward. Think about it. Everything we wear is indicative of adhering to an acceptable aesthetic. You have to look a certain way to be taken seriously. You can’t show up to a pitch meeting with unruly hair and mismatched sneakers. And you can’t just say that being sloppy is your preference. There is a standard to meet.
You have to graduate from Charm School to be able to create a job opportunity out of a chance encounter. That’s half a foot in the door. Why our teachers couldn’t spare a moment out of the pointless curriculums to share this about adulting, we may never know.
But it can’t just be about looking good. It has to be about qualifications too. Perhaps the reason why I can’t get a job I would be perfect for is because I may not be as experienced as the recruiters want. Or because I don’t possess the requisite degree. However, Twitter is inundated with posts of highly qualified individuals looking for work, any work. Plenty of individuals with prestigious degrees in fields like Microbiology and Engineering are looking for any kind of job. A few have taken to the streets with banners showing their qualifications.
Unemployment rates in Kenya are at a crisis point. Recent reports from the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics show that seven million Kenyans are unemployed. Out of these, 1.4 million have been desperately looking for work. The rest have given up on job hunting, with some opting to go back for further studies.
The data suggests that rate of unemployment is at 7.4%. Other studies show the rate at 11.4%. I couldn’t care less about the numbers. So what if seven million other people are as jobless as I am? It doesn’t change my personal situation.
Sometimes these jobs are only available at entry level. And even then, they end up being frustratingly temporary. A friend who eventually opted to seek employment abroad had an interesting early experience before he left.
After being employed as an I.T. intern in a reputable firm, a workmate suggested that he seek a permanent position.
‘Just apply,’ he was told, ‘What could go wrong?’
After making the application, the senior manager called him aside and told him he needed to grease the wheels.
‘You need to buy the wazee a mbuzi.’
After months of arduous labour configuring laptops and providing tech support, this was the thanks he got. When he showed hesitation in providing the mbuzi, the manager refused to approve his pay for two and a half months. This forced my friend’s immediate supervisor to pay him out of pocket. Eventually he had to leave the job and figure out what else to do. He was lucky enough to get a better opportunity a few weeks later.
But his happy ending isn’t the norm for entry-level workers. In 2016, I left a job as a data entry clerk because the project got axed. Other companies hire interns and have a policy against retaining them. Some start-ups, though courageous enough to hire newbies in the work environment, end up sinking anyway because of finances.
While this is a ‘norm’, it spells a world of doom for young people in their early twenties. Most of us end up getting mjengo type jobs where they’re veritable casual labourers. The mjengo system is a daily struggle to earn an unsteady pay check. Contracts that are renewed monthly. No job security. Linear use of skills. Doubtful job roles. No benefits. No legal protections. And you have to struggle through them because you’re ‘paying your dues’. Desperately hoping that perhaps the universe sees it as a proof of workmanship. That it will in turn reward you.
Then this is where the Boomers and Gen Xers come in. Parents are mad at the ‘lack of initiative’. If you’re hard at work shouldn’t there be fruits to show of your labour?
My father had one such conversation with me when I was unemployed after my first internship.
He raised one hand above his head, ‘These are your expenses.’
Another hand hovered near the ground, ‘This is your income.’
He brought his palms to meet around his face, ‘This is where you should be. Why can’t you get a job?’
Because nobody would hire someone fresh out of college with only three months’ experience to their CV.
The murmur of frustrated parents echoes around homes in the city that still support their recent graduates.
‘Why don’t you start a business?’
‘Food always makes money.’
‘Even with the economy sinking, Kenyans won’t stop wearing clothes, go into the mtumba business.’
But to be honest, entrepreneurship isn’t for everyone. It’s suited only to a gifted few. And even so, entrepreneurs struggle to make it through in a crony capitalist state like Kenya.
Another friend who owns a wildly successful travel solutions company told me, ‘Not everyone is cut to do it.’
Sure. All you need is guts, guile and a never-ending thirst for glory, right? Wrong.
My friend went on to add, ‘Cash flow is a serious problem, at least for me. Business only booms when the economy is good.’
‘So how did you survive?’ I asked.
‘You have to stretch the shilling, make sure you have years of savings for utilities and expenses because profit will be erratic. Work from home, use business offices if you have to reduce rent expenses. Keep a routine. Prepare for bad times. The 2017 election period caught us off guard. Nairobi is no longer just about Kenya. Understand that you will be facing international competition.’
This sounds like a lot to think about. It’s also what affects one entrepreneur among millions of others. If you are unemployed with barely any savings to your name, do you jump into that pool?
Technically, starting a business in Nairobi is supposed to be easy. Running it and keeping it afloat isn’t. And with the rising costs of living in the country, starting a business seems like a bad idea.
Essentially, it brings you back to the job-seeking arena. Get a job, save some cash and start a business, yeah? However, getting that job still isn’t easy. Most job-seeking sites have sales jobs aplenty. Sales seem to be the most common job available in the country.
‘Sales jobs are numerous because no matter what is happening, you’ll always want someone out there touting your product,” a friend of mine who heads business development for a media company tells me. It’s basically free marketing. That way your company is always known and you always have a potential client to add to your portfolio.’
Sales job are also notoriously poorly paid. Some companies even pay only on commission with no retainers or benefits. You can operate at no cost to the company.
It’s not always what it seems though. A sales operator for a hardware company told me it was difficult for him to get there. After leaving a job at an insurance company to go back to school, things didn’t improve just because he had upgraded his papers.
Two years with casual jobs, he eventually gets an email inviting him to an interview. The fact that it was being held in the conference room of a church raised a few flags, none of them red. Upon showing up at the gate, a young well-dressed man asked for his name, phone number and a two-hundred-shilling registration fee for the meeting.
‘Meeting? I thought this was for interviews?’
‘No, this is a network marketing meeting.’
He looked around and saw the poster then. It was a gathering for a multilevel marketing training course organised by a well-known cosmetics company. Why did they have their meeting in a church? God knows. Perhaps church halls are cheaper? Maybe for credibility? Churches do have a reputation for getting people to make it rain so…
Months passed before he got a sales job that barely provides him with an income. But at least he gets that coveted job experience recruiters live for.
Nairobi ensnares dreamers, those who have the temerity to be ambitious, in its gaping maw, sucking them dry and then spitting them out. This phenomenon doesn’t spare any generation.
A lady who had left for red, white and blue pastures in the early 2000s returned to Kenya after two years of experiences worthy of a depressing Chimamanda immigrant epic. Upon her return, she expected to be reinstated at her civil service job.
‘It’s standard practice. As long as you asked for leave, you just go to HQ and they reinstate you,’ she told me.
Unfortunately, things didn’t go as planned.
‘When I left, I asked for the time off over my supervisor’s head. He threatened me, told me to return after a month or else. I didn’t return. And when I was back two years later I found out he’d written a bad recommendation to the seniors at headquarters.’
‘Did you give up?’ I asked her.
‘No, I talked to a former workmate. He organised a meeting with one of the men in charge and they told me to pay KSh20,000 if I want to be reinstated. I paid and they told me to wait for two weeks then I can get my old job back. I didn’t. They were reshuffled into other jobs and I never even got back the money I paid.’
‘What about your supervisor? Couldn’t you talk to him and get him to rescind his bad recommendation?’
‘No, he died shortly after I came back. I was on my own. Every time I paid off the officials, they would get reshuffled. Eventually I ran out of money and none of them were willing to help unless I paid them.’
‘What about family? Couldn’t any of them help?’
‘Nobody wants to help a 40-year-old woman who could afford to travel abroad. And everyone else said they didn’t have any money or connections.’
Years later, she finally got a job. But she moved as far away as possible from Nairobi and its burdensome toxicity.
Is there any hope for little old me? We of the woefully unprepared for jobless insecurity, do we stand a chance? After experiencing an unprecedented bout of brokeness I reached out to people who were going through the same. Spells of having no money, crises of faith and crippling self-doubt. I asked a friend who has been through some of the most Dickensian worst of times.
‘It gets better,’ my friend promised.
‘After clearing college, our school was changed which made my diplomas unusable. That was barely my first hurdle. After that I got a sales job but turned it down because I just can’t do sales. I have tremendous respect for the people who do. I ended up drifting.’
‘Drifting?’ I asked.
‘Yeah, I was sneaking into classes at a friend’s school. I worked as a cleaner in a computer stall, I worked in a movie shop, I learnt to talk to people, how to broker deals and whatnot. I lost friends. I moved to Zimmerman and got a great job doing IT security then I got fired after a month. Let me tell you, don’t believe your own hype. Don’t oversell yourself on your CV.’
‘I don’t even know how to do that in my CV,’ I quipped.
He laughed uneasily.
‘I got an internship along Mombasa road where I had to walk to town every day because they weren’t paying us. After, I went to a job in Karen where after two months, the money stopped coming in. The company was going under but the boss didn’t tell us until after five months. I didn’t leave until after seven months. The boss would give us handouts. But then I ended up not paying rent. Eventually my house was locked and my stuff auctioned except my laptop and the clothes on my back. I contemplated suicide so many times, I looked for ways I could leave all this from being shamed by my relatives, friends with the ‘alirudi ocha‘ vibe.’
‘But after this I got my ‘big break’ because of a blog I had been writing since 2013. A CEO from abroad emailed me about it. At first, I thought it was a con but I just responded and got an amazing opportunity consulting with them. It’s what I’m doing now. I’ve worked with celebrities, big tech and governments.’
I was so inspired by his story. Empowered too. Binging on prosperity porn is one of the survival mechanisms of dreamers who toil in dead-end jobs or are ‘in-between jobs’. Stories like my friend’s show that while Nairobi makes you struggle, it can breed greatness, right?
We soak in all the stories about people who were felled by circumstance or their own folly managed to claw their way back, and maybe even thrive.
You have to be lucky. You have to be timely. My peers call it ‘your moment will come’. My more religious peers say, ‘Wait for God’s time’. Because there is a heavenly itinerary for when watu ordinary like Mwende and Kimemia will finally get someone to notice their work. The sad truth is that for most, dreams come true through the ‘blessing’ of others. It is that successful people give you a chance to shine. It makes me realize that it’s not necessarily your fault if you miss out when you’ve been working so hard for ‘the moment’.
My former employer even reached out to me after I was let go, ‘It had nothing to do with you or your talent,’ she insisted.
Maybe there are forces at work that can swing either way. 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 get that dream job or set up that dream business. It seems like a whole lot of moving parts, and I can’t blame anyone who can’t keep up.
Your Tea Leaves, Your Fortune
My grandparents on both sides of the family were early converts to the Yearly Meeting of Friends, also known as Quakers. You could say the Bible, school, tea and sugar were all tied to an idea of what it looked like to prosper in modern Kenya. Part of what showed that you were prospering was: tea and bread for breakfast, tea and bread at 4 o’clock, and tea at night for the adults sometimes, and also for the watchman. My mother had died soon after I was born. Yet my father, a single parent, was providing these things for his four children. He was prospering. And tea was at the center of prosperity, as were visitors. I was taught that you must offer tea to guests. This is how you make them feel welcome. This is how you put meaning into the words ‘feel at home’.
I learnt to make tea from watching our house help. We had a specific tea sufuria, from which she knew, just by looking at it, what level the water had to be. The water had to be warm before the tea leaves were added, and boiling when the milk was added. I was the last born, and so would act as the watcher of the tea sufuria, the one tasked to stand by the cooker and watch the tea rise and rise and then call for an older sibling or adult to come and switch off the cooker. I was taught that you couldn’t let the tea rise in the sufuria just once. You had to turn down the heat and then turn it up again, blow on the rising tea, and then stir it with the plastic sieve before finally turning off the cooker and pouring the tea into the blue enamel birika. There was some instruction about being careful not to stir the tea too much.
We always had our tea with bread, often spread with butter, jam or marmalade. Sometimes we’d have bananas instead, like the Kamau family in my English textbooks. Other times we’d have boiled maize, boiled sweet potatoes, boiled nduma or makhayo (maize and beans) instead, but this would happen when we had come from Kakamega or a visitor had brought something from Kakamega, home, as my father called it.
It was always two teaspoons of sugar per cup of tea.
My father had worked at the same organization, a subsidiary of a multinational company, since before I was born. Aside from providing a salary that allowed us to live as we did, the job ensured that we had calendars, t-shirts and even tablecloths (vitambaa) that carried the company’s brand. In this way, his working in that place was a part of my identity. However, in 1988 my father had a dispute with his employer that resulted in him being forced to resign. He had just remarried, and so losing his job made for a rocky start to a new marriage.
(In 1988, the exchange rate was 17 shillings to the US dollar. This mattered because the income he lost was based on this exchange rate. More on this later.)
In the wake of my father’s unemployment, his new marriage quickly broke down, and then he decided to sue his former employer. The turbulence meant that we moved a lot – 1989 felt like a strange nightmare. But by 1990, things had begun to settle down. My father, single again, had secured a new job, my sister and I had moved to a private primary school while my brothers attended good high schools. It seemed to be going back to normal except for the lingering court case that my father was confident he would win. From here onwards, the 4 o’clock tea was less likely to have accompaniments but it was mostly still available.
But this was the time that the Thermos Flask began to be more of an everyday-use item. When we were younger, The Thermos was an item reserved for visitors. It was carried out on a tray along with newest mugs and the visitors’ sugar bowl. But gradually, we started using it everyday. The Thermos was a genius hack because it meant not having to look for fresh milk every afternoon, and not having to light the cooker, saving on gas. But it also meant that the 4 o’ clock tea was the tea that had stayed in the Thermos since morning.
My father met someone else, and remarried again. We moved to a house that was much closer to my school. This came in handy on days when there was no fuel or car to take my sister and I to school. But then, the job troubles returned – it turned out that his previous employer was the client of his new employer and so this new job ended sooner than expected.
In my school diary, where it said “Father’s Occupation”, I wrote ‘businessman’. A code.
10 O’clock tea break
In my first primary school, a government school, tea had been served with bread every break time. Here, in the private school, we were required to carry our own snacks –whatever your preferred to eat and drink. It was understood that this had to be junk food – crisps, chevda, biscuits, chooze and diluted juice. You could carry bread and tea but also it was the sort of snack you didn’t feel proud to remove from your bag. At some point, I could no longer keep up with these requirements. Sometimes I had juice only, other times bread only. Other times nothing. I carried the boiled eggs to school but was too embarrassed to eat them so I carried them back home and ate them in my bedroom after school.
But there were always some of us who didn’t carry break. The ones who spent the entire 20-minute break intently focused on play or with faces hidden behind books. I may have at times made an unnecessary announcement about not feeling like eating. I doubt anyone cared really, and if they did they never made a big deal of it. My school fees kept rising, and my parents were the loudest ones in the PTA meetings, complaining. Eventually I moved back to a government school to complete Standard 7 and 8. Here, at least, we were more than a few people who didn’t carry anything for break. At least some of the my anxieties about break-time-hunger resolved.
Around us there were sugar shortages, and the absurdity of only being able to find sugar cubes, which couldn’t be rationed quite as easily. And there were times we switched to direct-from-the-farm milk suppliers because this milk was thicker and could stretch much more.
In 1992 all of my siblings and I were in our teens. I was the only one not yet in high school. Every beginning of term my siblings would undergo an extreme scrutinising of school shopping lists. Do you really need 5 bars of soap? Didn’t I buy you a shoe brush last term? Are you sure toothpaste costs that much? That kind of thing.
The tea and bread were never enough when they returned home for the holidays. The price of milk had leapt from 2 bob to 3.50 bob and it kept increasing. The price of bread had leapt from 4.75 to 6 shillings and then the government officially reduced the loaf size from 500 grams to 400 grams. This created all kinds of tension in the house. I learned to wake up extra early so that I could get the good bread slices – the crust, or the accidentally thick slices. At times we had to manage things by working out a roster of some kind, predetermining how many slices each person got and who got the extra slice if there was any. Sturungi (black tea) days instead of milk tea days became the norm. Jam was a Sunday breakfast delicacy or a thing that was offered to guests only and then it was disappeared for good. There was always the awkward moment when we had been told that there was no more margarine, or sugar, but a visitor arrived and these things appeared out of unseen stores. These were the times I hoped that the visitors would decline the extra slice of bread, already bluebanded and jammed because later it might be mine.
The visitors who saved us are the ones who showed up with milk, tea leaves, bread and margarine. For them and for ourselves we staged a dicey performance, pretending that we already had the sugar, the tea leaves and the milk we needed for making their tea. We were meticulous in arranging the tea cups on trays and providing them water to wash their hands. We might have even faked running to the kiosk for the extra ingredients that we didn’t actually have the money to purchase.
Deep freezer tea
Around this time, we had switched from cooking with gas to cooking with the kerosene stove or charcoal cooker. It just made more sense. In the happy event that there was gas, then this was strictly reserved for reheating food and anything that cooks fast like tea. Especially tea for visitors.
We were growing, our appetites had increased, so it meant always having a lot of tea around. But the tea was still always prepared with that one 500ml packet of milk from childhood, sometimes getting really translucent. But we always prepared a lot of it, and leftover tea was good – it was there to be sipped later to soothe our teenage hunger pangs, and could be served to unanticipated odd-hour visitors, or added to new tea for next time. At about this time that this strange innovation took hold at home. Deep freezer tea.
Until this disruption, leftover tea would sit in the kettle or the flask. If it went unconsumed until the end of the day, it was transferred into an old empty Kimbo tub or any other plastic container and stored in the fridge. In this new order, we learnt that tea in the freezer did not give off that ‘stayed-in-the-flask’ or recycled tea whiff. It was important, as such, that once breakfast was done, that it was quickly removed from the flask and let to cool off before being stored in the freezer. We’d always been having the old leftover tea mixed with new tea. Now, especially in the afternoons, the kitchen counter constantly had defrosting blocks of tea. There was the regular panic of having forgotten to take the tea out of the freezer. At times it was the unappealing blandness of two separate batches of defrosted tea combined. If you mixed the not-yet-defrosted frozen tea with the fresh tea on the stove you ran the risk of burning the tea. Burnt tea is terrible. The freezer can’t save it. Nothing can. Of course, our visitors always got tea made with fresh milk. Of course there were times I got reprimanded for mixing in old tea, or burning tea that was intended for visitors.
Rituals of visiting
When I was about 12 years old, I accompanied the adults in my life on a visit to a friends’ house. We’d travelled to this house with a girl, my age mate, and her mother. At this house, we’d sat on the sofas and waited to be served. We stared at the wall that had photos and pictures of the host family. The host brought out the jug with warm water, the basin and a hand towel. We washed our hands in turns and watched quietly as the tray of cups, sugar and the kettle was brought out. Our host then went around asking us what we would like to have. How many teaspoons of sugar? When it got to my age mate’s turn, she said she didn’t drink tea. She asked if she could have cocoa instead. The rest of us were all tea and two teaspoons of sugar takers. The host returned to the kitchen to seek out the girl’s preference and then returned to report that there was no cocoa. She asked the girl if she could take soda instead. The girl’s mother, somewhat angry, said that her daughter was just pretending. She insisted that cold water was all the girl needed. The host suggested that they could buy soda but the girl’s mother was firm. No need to spoil her. While we sipped our teas with buttered (not magarined) bread, the girl ate her bread with water. This scene stayed with me for years. I could never understand why her mother be so harsh. Now I look back and think how maybe these adults knew something about what this serving visitors’ good tea was costing our host.
Tea as consolation
Throughout the 90s my father never again secured full time (permanent) employment. It helped that my stepmother had a stable job that provided housing. It made it possible to stay in Nairobi even after we had lost the house he’d once owned. My father tried all sorts of ways to stay afloat. He was a taxi driver; an air travel agent, whose office also offered photocopying, printing services and telephone services; he ventured into politics; became a management consultant; and a computer instructor. Sometimes home entertainment was a practice round for a presentation on a slide projector, or watching training videos such as The Unorganized Manager. Sometimes, I’d come home from school and find him playing his old records – Franco, Tabu Ley and taking tea. Some days he’d be excited about the political events, the rise of multiparty democracy, or about whatever was showing on our very unclear CNN broadcast on our illegal connection of KTN. The court case that we’d thought was ending soon, was still going on and some days he was in a bad mood, playing dirge-like nostalgic music as he talked about the court proceedings.
There was the first time we had sturungi and rice for supper. There were not enough money to buy cooking oil and sukuma wiki. There was only rice and ugali flour in the kitchen cupboards. Rice was the better option.
When my father eventually moved out of Nairobi, my siblings and I remained because school was in Nairobi. I was in Standard 8 when I moved in with relatives. It was a bit of a shock to notice that they didn’t ration sugar as we had. At home we’d adapted to having sugar mixed in the tea while it was still in the sufuria, or going without sugar at all. At my relative’s house, we had tea and bread and it felt so weird to carry break to school again. A different universe.
Of breaking habits
I had missed the first day of high school because of a delay in getting money to sort my school fees and shopping. I had missed the class orientation session. At the 10 am break time, on my first day in high school, I went looking for my Form 2 roommate to ask her where the tea was served. She laughed and explained that in the school, break time was not for tea unless you had a doctor’s note. Those students who had notes from their doctors went to the dining hall and drank from their packets of UHT milk and their Marie biscuits. The rest of us, normal students, just studied or basked in the sun until break time was over.
In December 1997, my sister and I met my father in town, with our packed bags, as we were going to travel to Kakamega after court. I had just completed Form 3. Until then I’d always seen these losses and cutbacks that had happened to my family as an isolated situation. That morning though, we met my father along with former colleagues and friends who were there to accompany my father to court. They were all dressed in suits that had been bought around the same time, a while back. Faded. They had this look of trying to appear okay when it was evident that things had gone awry for all of them. They were jovial enjoying their tea at Trattoria restaurant, a short distance away from the high court. As if drinking tea in such a place was their normal routine. As if it was the kind of place they had always belonged. And yet it wasn’t. We were all smelling victory. I imagined that my father would come out of court and we’d be able to afford anything. However, that afternoon, the judgment was postponed. And it was postponed many times over until 2003 when it felt more like a release than a victory.
This part, my father tells me over a cup of tea: He sought audience with Chief Justice Cocker, Chief Justice Chesoni, and Chief Justice Chunga. He was always being told, write a letter. He wrote letters. He eventually got his judgment in 2003, but the victory was partial. His compensation was handed over at the USD/KSh exchange rate of 1988 rather than 2003. Still, it was something.
Tea as reparation
I keep trying to create a tea recipe that will be mine. It started when I bought a batch of chai masala that was just tasteless. I then purchased the unprocessed ingredients separately – dried cloves, cinnamon sticks, cardamom seeds, black pepper, fresh ginger. I’m trying to determine what the perfect proportion is. Some of it comes from that place of not wanting to experience the wateriness of tea, the burntness of tea, and the memory of scarcity it evokes. It comes also from wanting an elaborate reason to justify standing so close to the cooker to just watch the tea.
I’m lactose intolerant but have refused to accept it. I take milk often and then regret it. I go off milk and then get back again. I feel a little anxious when the milk runs out at the wrong time of the week. When the Finance Bill was passed I went and stocked up on milk because I’d like to believe that when I stop taking milk tea (if I ever do), that it will not be because I cannot afford it.
Features2 weeks ago
SLAY QUEENS, SOCIALITES AND SPONSORS: The normalisation of transactional sex and sexual violence in Kenyan society
Reflections2 weeks ago
NAIROBBERY: City of Injustice, City of Grief
Features2 weeks ago
AFTER THE END: Welcome to the age of ‘post-post-colonialism’
Features2 weeks ago
MAN IN THE MIRROR: Echoes of Jomo in Uhuru
Features6 days ago
THE KENYATTA SUCCESSIONS: The Resurgence of Hegemonic Politics in Central Kenya
Features2 weeks ago
OL’ MAN RIVER AND THE DAM STATE: Why the High Grand Falls Dam project is a bad idea
Reflections5 days ago
THE COLONIAL STATE, AUSTERITY AND “MIDDLE CLASS” ANGST: An insiders perspective
Features6 days ago
KING LEOPOLD’S BRUTAL LEGACY: Congo’s war against women