Connect with us

Reflections

Binyavanga at TEDx: Conversations with Baba

9 min read.

We cannot think of our continent as a hostile place. Too many of us have learnt to fear it. And I feel that if you trust it, engage with it and be involved with it in the conversations of building as adventurers, that this continent will start to sing to us again.

Published

on

Binyavanga at TEDx: Conversations with Baba
Photo: TEDx Talks
Download PDFPrint Article

Dear Baba, we’ve been needing to talk.

We haven’t really had a chance to talk since you died, three years ago, and I thought today would be a good day.

Of course you may be aware that mom … we had a conversation in January with mom – about me and about stuff in general.

In April 2001, Baba, I had just come back from Cuba for spring break. I’d gone of course to misbehave and I had a lot of fun. In fact, it was difficult getting out because I didn’t know in Cuba you couldn’t use an American credit card. I had to rush back on that Sunday to get back to teach on Monday – and on Monday, my head felt weird.

I thought, ah, too much rum. My body wasn’t moving properly, things were awkward.

Monday, Tuesday – taught class – Wednesday Thursday…On Friday it felt like there was water moving all over my head and I took myself to the hospital. They took an MRI and they told me I had had nine small strokes – this was April.

And they said they have to put a pipe through here [gestures to hip area] because that vein was 70% full and it would go inside and reach here [gestures to left side of his head] and then it would burst open and there’s a 5% chance that I would bleed and things would happen – of course, you know.

Remember most conversations were happening on the phone and I was away for 14 days. We really didn’t get to talk.

Later, months later, Auntie Muthoni came to visit and said to me, “Oh, you know your father called me in tears and said please save my son,”

Now, you know, Baba, we really never have these sorts of conversations:

I love you.”

“I love you.”

“Fine”

I ended up in hospital again because of having panic attacks when I was trying to get home after coming out from the operation with the stroke.

It was terrible – those three days.

You sent me an email while I was in hospital thinking, and it was true, that I was too afraid to come home and said please come home and I came home.

I didn’t see you and I came to Nairobi and I was so freaked out, Baba, you know. I don’t know why. It was impossible at the time to interact with people. So, I went into hiding in Nairobi. I went into hiding because…at first I thought it was the shock from the operation – it turned out it was some kind of medication that I had had (and I didn’t know about). At this point, you did not know and I did not have time to see you.

So eventually, I decided to go to Ghana with my lover.

We were going to do a conference in Nigeria and I was going to just go and chill out and think about nothing. I decided on the last day to come see you in Nakuru. We booked a hotel and came to see you that night.

My partner had malaria and we were seated in the evening and I was trying to explain to you what was going on in the hospital, and as we were talking you stood up and tears came to your eyes. You rushed out of the house because you really couldn’t hear or didn’t want to hear what had been going on with your son.

You came back 20 minutes later, we said goodbye, and in the morning, I took a plane to Ghana.

We played and had fun for three weeks and I came back and on July 7, which was the anniversary of mom’s death. I woke up in Nairobi, in a rented apartment, with my lover.

Read series: Binyavanga Wainaina

Clem, your partner, called and she said, “Your father is not feeling well.”

At first we thought it was indigestion (we know he is stubborn). She had queued, standing parked at a testing place because he didn’t want to see a doctor. He wanted to go do medical tests.

So I said to her, “You know he’s very stubborn. So what I suggest you do is, if he hasn’t eaten well, take him straight to the hospital and put him on a drip. Don’t ask. Don’t argue. Just turn the car around … I don’t even want to talk to him. Let me reverse.”

When we sat in your living room three weeks before, you had said to me something. You said, “Kenneth, you know I’ve prepared a room for the two of you.”

And I remember very clearly my head saying, “What? This is unusual and clearly you’re opening a file.”

You know, Baba, you never asked me where is your girlfriend.

And I can’t say there was any consistency in the love you gave. You never said there was anything wrong when I was dressing up in girls’ clothes with Shiru and getting into strange kinds of trouble – it seemed to least bother you. Or me twirling like Michael Jackson.

There were clearly concerns on your face but it didn’t affect the love you gave me.

So when you said that, I thought to myself this is the time to bring it up with you.

Surely, this is the time for me to say, that I need to hear from you, to be freed to love, and that I am 40-something years old and I need that freedom. And I need to hear from you that it’s okay.

But I didn’t because I wanted to go to Ghana.

So, Clem takes you off, to Rift Valley General Hospital. They put you on the drip.

And then she called me at midnight and says, “Something is wrong” … something is wrong. And then matron calls and then we’re in the car in the middle of the night rushing to Nakuru.

My brother is trying to get a plane to ship him out, something has clearly happened.

And then I am in Nakuru, late night. And we are sitting.

That hospital has only a small heater to keep you warm and your eyes look like glue. They don’t look like eyes at all. But your hands, arms are warm and they’re strong. When I touch – grab – your hands, your hands seem strong.

That’s the anniversary of mom‘s death.

So I’ve asked myself: Did you decide? Was it you saying it’s time to be with mom again, 11 years later? Why that day?

Because even if the doctors declared you dead, five days later, it was that day that everything – a stroke, like mine, but bigger, destroyed your brain and you were effectively dead.

So there must be something to that, right?

But at the same time, I also feel…this cost of parents, that they themselves gave themselves to their own children…what damage was I doing to you… those 14 days in hospital, possibly dying…and how much was this thing that we both carry – this genetic thing called stroke – activated by the stress I put you through in the hospital?

We’ve been needing to talk about that.

Errr…we also need to talk about the fact that I have taken to wearing skirts and clearly this must bring you some measure of consternation.

Of course because I didn’t have a chance to really talk to you about it, I decided to bring it up to the whole bloody planet.

I went to Nigeria and those people in Nigeria, the people I’ve known – the writers, welcomed me. Not only did they just welcome me, they insisted I come. Not only did they insist I come – of course you know that many of them cleared the way for it to be possible for me to be there – in Nigeria; where you could die or be arrested, and killed for being the kind of guy who wears skirts like I do. And had a lovely time.

I went to Senegal for four months. They shut down an exhibition on homosexuality there – the Emami people went making all sorts of noises about it. Me I swam and enjoyed myself.

You know, in a way, me I want to become an adventurer.

Me I was the son who was shy in your house. I was not, eeh, the brave one. I wasn’t the brave one. Shiru was brave. James was brave. Chiki was brave. I really wasn’t the brave one. But I feel like now, my season is beginning.

In this continent called mine, and I am an African, I want no space to not welcome me.

There was a moment in April, after I came out, where I was supposed to go to Italy. And it seemed as if you could hear these swirling noises of people. And it wasn’t so much that there were any threats – there were no direct threats, Baba, because I felt that enough people who disagreed with what I am, agreed that you could not doubt my sense of honour and the work that I have done for many years to change this continent. And therefore, even the people of the church, up to the cardinal, were unable to confront me directly.

Because I believe, Baba, this continent is ready to agree to disagree and at the same time to tolerate.

I must tell you a story Baba.

So, I just come out, right?

Here I am being this public homosexual. And the news is going crazy; everywhere there’s this noise.

So I get this phone call from the Nation Media Group (who are the most important media group)

“Oh, is it Binyavanga?”

“Yes.”

“You know, there’s this program we do about role models and the boarding school you went to, Mang’u High School – the oldest secondary school in the country and one of the most prestigious ones. They say they want you to come on Saturday to film this show we do, to be role models for school children.”

So I’m like, and Baba you can’t believe, “Are you crazy? Don’t you know that I’ve just come out as a public homosexual? This is Kenya! Are you mad?”

He’s like, “No, I’ve just spoken to the literature teacher. The school says they want you there on Sunday, they are shooting it live and they say that you are the most important alumni after President [Mwai] Kibaki. So you have to come.”

So I say, okay, I’m going to Mang’u.

We reach there and the head boy takes me around the school. We see the dorms and they’re telling me everything. Mr Kiwanuka, who used to teach chemistry, (which I flunked) is still there. I left that school in 1987 and that man is still there! He hasn’t even changed.

And the guy tells me, “Oh, Binyavanga, you know we’ve been seeing you on BBC, we’re very proud.”

So I’m trying to ask him, “What have you been seeing on BBC?”

He doesn’t say anything!

We sit in the hall, they are ready to shoot. The whole school is there. No one looks weird or anything.

And then we see a man in the uniform of a priest running – it looks like he’s running from 500m – from administration block. He’s running followed by another man in a suit.

They come there to the front where I’m sitting and the man (he’s the school chaplain) says “I’m very sorry, the cardinal called. We can’t do this. You know we are very close to the church. We can’t do this. I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry.” In front of the whole school.

And I said to myself, Africa has changed. Or maybe it’s never needed to. That those people who came from that time of colonisation to split us apart until our splitting apart comes from within our own hearts, that inside the space of that Mang’u high school, there was no such feeling. Until the brokers, until those fake moral hypocritical brokers of our freedom to be diverse, we, the oldest and the most diverse continent there has been, we, where humanity came from, we, the moral reservoir of human diversity, human age, human dignity …right?

Who are these appointed brokers, Baba?

Who are they?

Because wherever they sit you see Boko Harams tearing us apart. You see political things tearing us apart.

The simple acceptance of our right to be and to be diverse is the biggest and strongest thing to defend. Nothing will release our energy in this age of moving forward than that, Baba

Baba you taught me honour.

You are the one who said, “I’m the CEO of a company – you see those ones, they can’t come for your birthday party.”

I’m like: “Why can’t they come for a birthday party?”

“Because their father is a thief. That car you see them driving around in, they are thieves. And thieves will not be in my house.”

You brought us up in a nest of security; hidden away from a similar kind of elite – who we were jealous of because they had things. They went to England. They went on holiday to these glamorous places.

You could have and you did not.

You did not die rich. Your old 505 Peugeot was still there.

You created an industry. You built houses for workers. You retired and saw the pyrethrum board collapse, under mismanagement.

But you set a bar.

My bar is not like yours – I don’t do understated and tweed, but it’s the same sense of honour that you taught me, Baba.

So I’m here today to tell you that I would like us all to be adventurers for this continent. By adventuring for this continent, what for me I feel cannot be stood for is that there’s any place that one cannot go. And there’s nothing that one cannot imagine. And that we need to step out of the simple spaces of dogma that are fed by brokers – almost all of whom profiteer and gain political capital from rendering us apart and separate.

There’s nothing that is a priority about being a homosexual and an African. But there’s everything that every African has to defend; every kind of diversity that we carry as an African, even when you do not understand it.

For me what has come to be is to arrive at this place where I am living in plain light.

I am not living in a dark continent.

I will stand free – the way I need to be as a moral being on the continent and nobody will stop me from going where I will. If you decide to, I will go through you or you will stop me. We cannot think of our continent as a hostile place. Too many of us have learnt to fear it.

And I feel that if you trust it, engage with it and be involved with it in the conversations of building as adventurers, that this continent will start to sing to us again.

That’s all I have to say.

 

This is a transcription of a talk given by Binyavanga Wainaina at a TEDxEuston event in 2015. You can watch the video here.

Support The Elephant.

The Elephant is helping to build a truly public platform, while producing consistent, quality investigations, opinions and analysis. The Elephant cannot survive and grow without your participation. Now, more than ever, it is vital for The Elephant to reach as many people as possible.

Your support helps protect The Elephant's independence and it means we can continue keeping the democratic space free, open and robust. Every contribution, however big or small, is so valuable for our collective future.

By

Binyavanga Wainaina (18 January 1971 – 21 May 2019) was a Kenyan author, journalist and 2002 winner of the Caine Prize for African Writing. In April 2014, Time magazine included Wainaina in its annual TIME 100 as one of the "Most Influential People in the World".

Reflections

Kenya’s Social Justice Movement: Remembering Our Unsung Heroes

Gathanga Ndung’u commemorates activists whose lives were snatched away by Kenya’s brutal capitalism. Activists who launched a war against a system of impunity, a world one hundred times larger, mightier, and older than them, but, Ndung’u explains, that each of them mounted a defence to protect and defend their comrades and communities.

Published

on

Kenya’s Social Justice Movement: Remembering Our Unsung Heroes
Download PDFPrint Article

The independence struggle of 1920 to 1963 against the colonial government was followed by the second liberation struggle from 1982 to 1992 against the dictatorship of the President Daniel Arap Moi. This was a fight for democracy, a just constitution and a fight for civic space. This culminated with repealing of Section 2A of the constitution in December 1991 which had made Kenya a one-party state for almost a decade. The new, or third wave of liberation has been carried out by social justice movements in Kenya together with a multitude of organisations.

This reflection focuses on three committed activists whose lives were cut short by the same system that took our independence heroes. They dedicated their lives in the new wave of struggle which has been characterised by extra-judicial executions and enforced disappearances by the police, the shrinking of democratic space, high level corruption, the ever-widening gap between the poor and rich and the privatisation of basic services.

The Social Justice Centres’ Working Group (SJCWG) is an umbrella body of more than sixty social justice centres based in the communities across the country. It was formed early in 2018 when individual grassroots human rights centres decided to come together to tackle the many injustices in the country and more so in the poor urban areas. The Social Justice Centres Movement has also suffered losses in its five years of existence with the lives of three human rights defender (HRD’s) ending in tragic ways. The richness of life is not through material accumulation, but rather through the impact we make on others.

In this post I celebrate the lives and activism of our fallen comrades as a testament to their work and in the hope that they did not die in vain, and they can inspire others.

Carol ‘Mtetezi’ Mwatha

Carol Mwatha was a mother of two and was a vibrant and committed human rights defender who dedicated her life to serving the community. She worked to ensure that the streets were safe for the youths who had been a target of police killings, arbitrary arrests, extortion and harassments. She started her activism long before the formation of Dandora Community Justice Centre (DCJC) and she had created an elaborate network with other community organisers, activists and organisations fighting for the same cause.

The truth about her tragic end will probably never be known due to the manner in which the state agents hastily created what seemed like an obvious cover up and disseminated the story to media houses without reaching out to the family first, as protocol would have demanded. This was a deliberate move to control the narrative. Carol went missing on 6 February 2019 only to be found at the city morgue on 12 February registered under a wrong name. Her family and friends had been at the same facility on the 8 and 9 February and didn’t find her among those that had been brought to the facility from the day she went missing.

The police story lacked credence from the very beginning. The mortuary attendants failed to disclose the officer in charge on the day she was purportedly brought to the morgue. The post-mortem was delayed, and even then, the wrong name was suspiciously entered – Carolyn Mbeki – and the police went ahead and informed the media of her ‘discovery’ on 12 February even before informing the family.

Carol was a visionary leader with excellent organisational and mobilisation talents. The idea of forming a centre in the community was taken in her house at an informal meeting with her comrades. She saw the need to have a community centre to bring different community organisers into Dandora under one umbrella and speak in one voice. She sat down together with her comrades from DCJC and committed to organising and mobilising her community against the many social injustices they experienced daily.

As a mother, Carol rejected the idea of bringing-up her children in a context where injustices are normalised. To this end, she committed to fight extra-judicial killings, police extortion, arbitrary arrests and harassment of youths which were and still are a common trend in Dandora and other high-density and poor neighbourhoods. She knew what she was standing against but her zeal for a safe Dandora superseded her fears. Alaman James, a long-time friend of Carol notes she was a frequent visitor to Kwa Mbao Police Post and other police stations in Dandora as she tried to secure the freedom of community members who had been arbitrarily arrested. Alaman recounts how Carol – his church friend turned activist – spent countless hours going late at the night to police stations and from one organisation to another trying to help victims. Her resolve to follow-up police killings set her against powerful forces which were used to acting with complete impunity. The establishment of DCJC in the community definitely sent a strong a message which made these forces feel threatened.

Faith Kasina, another close friend of Carol and a coordinator of Kayole Community Justice Centre, described her as a mother figure to most of her comrades. Despite her lean frame, she had wide shoulders for her comrades to lean on when they needed her. She was an elder sister, a mother figure to some, and a close confidant to many. Faith talks of a comrade who would frequently reach out to her friends and comrades just to make sure they were well. Through her friends’ accounts, I learnt about a leading comrade who stood against overwhelming odds no matter the outcome.

Carol Mwatha launched a war against a system of impunity, a system one hundred times larger than her, mightier than her, older than her, but she mounted a defence to protect her children and the community where she lived.

Henry Ekal Lober “Turu”

On 21 February 2021, we lost another committed comrade. Members of the social justice movement learnt of his death after a six-day search ended with the tragic revelation. Ekal had lost consciousness and was taken to Kenyatta National Hospital. Members of his social justice centre had spent days looking for him without help from the hospital administration. With the lethargy and negligence in our public hospitals and because he was not accompanied by anyone to the hospital, he was left to the mercy of fate. He succumbed to his condition and died.

Ekal or Turu as he was known by many, hailed from Loki in Turkana hence his alias. Just like many in Mathare, Ekal found a second home there and he would spend the rest of his years in the community. He came to Nairobi looking for a promising life after leaving his pastoralist family hundreds of kilometres from the capital. Mathare welcomed him with open arms, and he ‘fell in love’ with the place, never to return home.

Ekal had slurred speech, a limp and wound that had become septic overtime, and he struggled with both alcoholism and the institutionalised poverty in the ghettos of the city. Despite these problems, he was a forever jovial, brutally honest with everyone and coherent when it came to articulating issues of injustices caused by the system. For this, some referred to him as professor.

Mary Njeri, one of the administrators at Mathare Social Justice Centre (MSJC), recalls her moments with Ekal with nostalgia: “Even though he struggled with alcoholism, he was smart and very clear when it came to articulating his thoughts and what he envisioned for the community. He always carried a pen and a book for jotting down ideas and reflections and a magazine to read in his free time. I sometimes wondered what he would be scribbling and one day out of curiosity, I decided to have a look in one of his notebooks …I was shocked to learn that Ekal was conducting one-man research on Water Accessibility in Kosovo, an area of Mathare where he lived. He did all this with zero budget. Despite his failing health, he would criss-cross the narrow alleys to interview residents on his topic.”

On this particular day, he came straight to Njeri. She wrote and translated the conversation that ensued:

Ekal: Hello Njeri

Njeri: I’m fine, what about you?

Ekal: I’m fine. Are you still in college? Do you know how to use a computer?

Njeri: Yeah, I know how to.

Ekal: (Unfolding his research papers), I would like you type up my research report on water.

Njeri was left speechless after going through the content of his research. It was written in a very clear manner capturing most aspects of the water crisis. Ekal was proactive when it came to action and chose to do what was needed without waiting for donors to fund his work. This is the true spirit of an organic community organiser. Apart from this, he always wrote articles which he would ask comrades to type for him. Yet he was an intellectual that got smothered by the system, slowly sucking his dreams out of him, leaving him hollow and broken.

Ekal was a committed member of Bunge La Mwananchi (People’s Parliament). It is from this space where he became friends with Gacheke Gachihi one of the founder members of MSJC. Ekal floated the idea of forming a JM Kariuki Social Justice Centre named after Josiah Mwangi ‘JM’ Kariuki, who was an activist and politician assassinated during Jomo Kenyatta’s regime. MSJC would later be formed in 2014 to document and fight extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances and other social injustices.

I came to know Ekal in 2020 at various functions organised by MSJC. In all these meetings, he always created ‘beautiful trouble’, the kind of trouble I call, ‘necessary trouble’. He would not let the meetings proceed without following protocol. He would speak his mind and oppose anything that he deemed not to be in the spirit of true and radical justice.

According to Njeri, Ekal wouldn’t hide his disappointments and offer his unsolicited criticism and would repeat it over and over until his counsel was heeded. And of course, it was always positive criticism. Through this approach, he was instrumental in MSJC’s growth and helped to ensure that the centre did not veer off from its core and founding mandates.

Oyunga Pala, a Kenyan journalist, columnist and an editor, teamed up with Ekal and became a committed member of the Mathare Green Movement where, with Ekal, he embarked on an ambitious project to clean and green Mathare. Hailing from the arid areas of Turkana in Northwest Kenya, Ekal understood very well the role trees play in our ecology. He invested his time in increasing the tree cover of Mathare knowing very well that most of the trees wouldn’t benefit him personally but would serve the generations to come.

The Mathare Green Movement went ahead and transformed garbage sites and polluted areas into small parks. These small parks serve as oases of hope in Mathare giving us a sneak preview of the Mathare dream that Ekal believed in. In his final tribute to Ekal, Oyunga Pala describes the futuristic dream that Ekal saw for Mathare; the future where youths could craft their destinies by being proactive in shaping and charting a new path full of hope. Ekal was one of the few comrades who was proactive, pragmatic, brutally honest, and committed to the struggle with a jovial soul. He always strived to rise above the system’s dragnets stifling his spirit.

This is my ode to Ekal:

May the homeless birds from the wilderness find a tree to perch on in Mathare,

from a restless journey may they find home, an oasis of peace and comfort.

May your trees be home to thousands of homeless birds,

ejected from their ancestral homes due to ecological disruption.

May your trees clean the foul air in Mathare,

the foul air of ethnicity, crime, despair and hopelessness

 and breathe out fresh air rich in hope, a brighter future and common goal of prosperity.

May the roots of your trees hold together the soil of Mathare,

the soil with the blood of Mau Mau and many slain youths.

May that rich history be held together by the roots of your trees.

May that soil never be eroded or washed away.

Let your trees hold the rich history for us and for the future generations.

Alphonce Genga

On 4 February 2022, the Social Justice Centres’ Movement was thrown into yet another deep mourning after the sudden death of Comrade Alphonse Genga. Alphonse was a 21-year old comrade of Githurai Social Justice Centre (GSJC) whose demise occurred four days to from his 22nd birthday.

Brian Mathenge, a close friend, and a colleague of Alphonse paints a picture of a young, vibrant comrade fresh from school, who decided to make an impact in his community. He chose the unfamiliar route, to commit his life to protect the weak, the marginalised, the voiceless and the poor in Kenya. Within a year, Alphonse was a powerhouse in activist circles due to his sincere commitment. He used art to reach out to more community members and to educate, organise and mobilise.

Alphonse would later join the Mau Mau study cell organised in Githurai. Through the ideological grounding classes he attended, he joined the Communist Party of Kenya (CPK) where he dedicated his time to reading and understanding Marxist theory. This sharpened him politically and he would later use the same knowledge to reach more people from his area of residence in Roysambu. He preached and practiced socialism.

Alphonse wore many hats, but if there is one aspect that defined him it was his commitment to ecological justice. He took part in the annual climate strike, he had joined several ecological justice groups such as Eco-Vista, Ecological Justice League, Kasarani Ecological League, Green Jewel Movement and Githurai Green Movement among others.

During the posthumous birthday and celebration of his life, one of his friends confessed that Alphonse had quit football, giving up a talent that he had nurtured since childhood so that he could spend more time in the fight for his community in Githurai.

On 2 February, he was involved in a road accident. He suffered an internal head injury and a broken arm. He was rushed to Kenyatta National Hospital (KNH) where he was left unattended for more than ten hours, yet he was a critical condition. Alphonse was in acute pain; his centre members were in panic in the hospital compound. It was only after a confrontation between his friends and the hospital staff that the doctors attended to him although with great lethargy. At the time of his death, his broken arm had not been attended to, more than 36 hours after admission. It was this kind of neglect in a system dominated by privatised healthcare that gradually and painfully squeezed the life out of Alphonse. The same healthcare system he was fighting to improve cut his life abruptly short.

It is an agonising fact which makes one reel with pain to learn that a public hospital such as KNH has a private wing to attend to their well-to-do clientele while the general populace is segregated in general wards without enough medics, nurses, drugs and beds for patients. Only the rich get services as they can afford to pay for them while the poor daily die in droves. Privatisation of the healthcare system in the country has turned the entire system into a for-profit venture.

To give a befitting tribute to our fallen comrade, it is the responsibility of every comrade to demand a total overhaul of the cartel-ridden healthcare system and replace it with a service that serves the people.

In the spirit of Alphonse Genga, it’s NOT YET UHURU until our healthcare is liberated. Let’s ensure we fight for justice, dignified lives, and a better healthcare system as comrade Genga lived doing.

This article was first published by ROAPE.

Continue Reading

Reflections

The Nairobi We Want: Re-Imagining the City Through a Public Commuter Train System

In designing my map of Kenya Railways, I was fascinated by the history of the meter-gauge network and the new Standard Gauge Railroad. But what stood out to me was that the lines of the Nairobi Commuter Rail network were short, had only a few stops, and only operated a few times a day.

Published

on

The Nairobi We Want: Re-Imagining the City Through a Public Commuter Train System
Photo: Guss B on Unsplash
Download PDFPrint Article

My name is Kara Fischer! I currently live in New York City, and I’m 24 years old. I’ve loved trains for as long as I can remember, and I’ve been making fantasy maps ever since I was eleven years old, when I visited Europe and saw trains absolutely everywhere—it was nothing like the almost-nonexistent train system at home in the United States. I wanted to imagine what it would be like if the United States had just as many trains as Europe, and so I started sketching maps with pencil and paper, one state at a time.

A few years later, I discovered Cameron Booth’s blog transitmap.net, which collected and reviewed maps from all over the world. Seeing all the wonderful maps on that blog inspired me to start mapping existing systems as well as imaginary ones, and I decided to make my own blog, at https://thetransitgirl.tumblr.com/. While my maps did land me one brief summer job with my state’s Department of Transportation, for most of my life my mapmaking has just been a hobby, where I’d make maps in my spare time while working towards my dream career of writing stories for animated film and television.

Until recently, most of the maps I made were focused on the United States, with a few maps of European cities mixed in. However, that changed at the start of 2022 when I saw a news article about Morocco’s Al Boraq high-speed rail line. I’d had no idea that Morocco actually had high-speed rail at all, and when I looked into it I found that Morocco had a fascinating network of high-speed, intercity, and local trains, with a level of service far greater than what we have in the US. But what I couldn’t find was a map clearly showing the service patterns—and so I decided to make one myself, piecing together all the information I could find online. I’m certain there are errors, including a few missing stations, but I was still quite proud of the map I created.

Since Morocco’s network had wound up being an unexpected joy, I started researching railway networks around the world to try to find other countries to map. Many countries had networks far too large to permit showing all stations in a single map, while many more countries only had one or two train routes, if any. And of the countries that did have networks of the size I was looking for, most didn’t post their timetables online, or had websites that weren’t viewable from the United States. But I did end up finding two national networks that I wanted to map—Estonia and Kenya.

In designing my map of Kenya Railways, I was fascinated by the history of the meter-gauge network and the new Standard Gauge Railroad. But what stood out to me was that the lines of the Nairobi Commuter Rail network were short, had only a few stops, and only operated a few times a day. This was different from most of the systems I’d seen elsewhere in the world: usually, lines with infrequent service and spread-out stops would go considerably further from the city center, while short lines that stayed mostly within a city would have frequent service and lots of stops close together. So the way I saw it, Nairobi was using commuter rail to do a metro’s job, and its current network wasn’t serving the needs of the citizens. This was remarkable to me since I knew most people in Nairobi didn’t have cars.

Nairobi Metro Schematic Map

And that’s what raised the question: what if Nairobi had an actual metro, with frequent stops and frequent service? Where would the lines go? Almost on a whim, I decided to try making a fantasy map, just like the maps I’d made since I was eleven.

I started with the existing commuter rail lines as a template, and the first change I made was to add more frequent stations. I looked at both Apple Maps and Google Maps to try to spot the major roads and population centers along the train lines, and I started adding stations in locations designed to be easy to get to, mostly along major roads. Outside the city center, I tried to have stations be approximately one kilometer apart: that way, the entire path of the route would have stations within walking distance, but there wouldn’t be so many stations that the trains would be slowed down by all the stops they’d have to make. Within the city center, however, I spaced stations closer together, since there would be more popular destinations—this would reduce walking distances for many passengers, and it’d also prevent individual stations from becoming too crowded. This method of spacing stations is quite common around the world—a good example is the rail network in Chicago, where I lived for five years.

With more stations added along the existing commuter rail routes, the next question was how to bring service to the parts of the city that weren’t already next to the commuter rail. I decided to mostly follow existing major roads, which is a common approach in cities around the world. Major roads tend to already go to major destinations, after all, and there are multiple options for how the tracks can be built: within the road sharing lanes with cars, in the median at the center of the road, elevated above the road, or in tunnels underneath. Waiyaki Way, Thika Rd, and Mombasa Rd were obvious choices, and I decided to also add an additional downtown route that could go along either Moi Ave or Tom Mboya St. At the outskirts of the city, I tried to connect some of the larger suburbs, but I completely missed both Rongai and Ngong due to a visual quirk in Apple Maps.

In putting together the route segments to determine where each line would go, I made sure every line would serve the downtown area, and I also made sure that every line intersected with every other, so that passengers wouldn’t need to make more than one transfer. The current commuter rail network has the route from Central Station to Makadara as its busiest segment, and so I kept that in my map, sending three lines along that corridor. Since this was the core of the map, I decided to color the three lines to make the flag of Kenya, to tie together the map’s aesthetic design.

When I posted the first version of the map to Tumblr, I expected just a few people to see it—that’s what had happened with all my previous maps, after all. Since I didn’t know anyone from Kenya, I didn’t expect I’d actually get any feedback from locals on how well I’d understood the city’s geography. But after a few days, my map was shared on Twitter by Mbithi Masya, and suddenly I was getting a flood of responses to it from Nairobians. None of my maps had ever gone viral before, and so this was incredibly exciting—and I definitely wanted to take the opportunity to use this feedback to improve the map!

And so, a few hours after the map went viral, I started working on a second version. The most common criticism I’d seen was that the map didn’t serve Rongai or Ngong—both of which I was able to connect to the network by extending the Purple and Green Lines. One person from Githurai convinced me to send the Purple Line there rather than sending it out to Ruai and Mihango, while another person brought up the lack of service to Kitengela. This highlighted the lack of actual commuter rail in my map, and so I added several commuter rail lines out of Nairobi Terminus—some following existing tracks, while others would follow new alignments to connect additional suburbs. (This included Ruai and Mihango, so that they wouldn’t have to lose service due to the rerouted Purple Line.)

When I posted the second version of the map later that evening, it started spreading just as quickly as the first one had—and this time, the feedback was overwhelmingly positive, where even people who had taken issue with the original map were thrilled about how I’d addressed their concerns in the second version. This was unexpected—I’d never been to Nairobi, and so I’d never fathomed that I’d be able to make a map that would actually appeal to locals. And before I knew it, my map was getting noticed by public figures such as Sakaja Johnson and Charles Kabaiku, the latter of whom expressed interest in inviting me out to Nairobi. I don’t actually know whether or not he was joking, but if he wasn’t, I’d certainly love to visit for a few weeks to gain an on-the-ground understanding of the city’s infrastructure!

All that being said, though, this map’s ultimately a pipe dream—or a Tube dream, I suppose. In planning the routes, I deliberately avoided questions like how hard the network would be to build, or how much it would cost, or the impacts the train lines would have on the surrounding areas. The map’s aspirational, but not realistic—I’m not the person to go to for actual solutions to Nairobi’s current transportation needs. One Twitter user called me “mzungu”, and while I hadn’t heard the term before, it’s definitely accurate: I’m a foreigner, and I certainly don’t know the city even remotely as well as Nairobians do. And there are people on the ground in Nairobi who’ve been working for years to find practical and feasible ways to breathe new life into the city’s transportation—as an example, the Digital Matatus project is a wonderful visualization of the current network. Guiding Nairobi into the future is a job for Nairobians, not for me.

But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a purpose to fantasy maps like mine. Even if my map doesn’t show a vision that’s feasible to build, it’s gotten people talking—Twitter says the second version of my map has been seen over a hundred thousand times, and that number keeps going up. Countless Nairobians have taken this map as a call to action—when people see how good the future of transit can be, people realize that the future of transit is worth fighting for. And so while my map may have sparked a widespread passion for transit in Nairobi, my greatest hope is that everyone who’s been inspired by my map will follow that inspiration to find the practical ways people are working on to improve transit—because if those projects gain more awareness, then that’s the next step towards building a better Nairobi.

And as for me, well…I’ll keep on making maps as I continue to pursue my screenwriting career! People who’ve seen my Nairobi map have asked me to make similar fantasy maps for other cities, such as Mombasa, Lusaka, Kampala, and Kigali, and I’m hoping to get at least a few of those done within the coming days. I’m incredibly honored to have made an impact in Nairobi, and I’ll definitely be very excited to see what happens next from here.

Continue Reading

Reflections

The Woman in a Leso

Every village has one. They may be disparaged as social misfits, openly loathed but secretly, they are admired because they are no longer afraid to be themselves in a society where people prefer to hide behind facades of good behaviour

Published

on

The Woman in a Leso
Photo: Shirley de Jong/Wikimedia Commons
Download PDFPrint Article

The Amstelveen bus station is located under a large parking lot serving the Stadshart shopping mall where several luxury brands have stores. It is not the kind of bus station that I am used to and I find it quite sterile. The passenger platforms are wide and mostly empty and the walls on one end are a dull grey in a way that emphasises the often lugubrious weather in Amsterdam. There are two lanes where the buses enter and exit smoothly and on time. The drivers never honk their horns, or leave the engine running as they go off to look for a toilet. There are no touts jostling for customers or hawkers trying to catch the eyes of passengers through the windows. I have never seen a queue for the bus even in the rush hour. The efficiency of public transport in this new country can feel robotic and it does not encourage idling.

But today, I find myself idling because I did not bother to consult my transport app to time my departure to precision. The electronic bus schedule screen tells me that I have a twelve minute wait time for Bus 348 that takes me to Amsterdam South station where I can catch a train to the North.

From where I stand, I spot a motherly figure about 20 metres away walking calmly towards my direction. She stops in front of a pay point. The Netherlands uses a cashless system and you have to buy a ticket to use a bus, tram or train. She starts ruffling through her bag. I find myself staring at her unusual presence and instinctively straighten up as one does in the presence of a woman deemed to be in the age group of one’s mother. I have this sudden need to be helpful but all I do is stare at her.

Where has she come from? Did her son or daughter, probably an African expatriate send their old lady off to catch the bus on her own and now she had lost her way? Did she even know how  to navigate the foreignness of this place?

I jump to all these conclusions based on her appearance. She is wrapped in patterned and coloured Swahili lesos (a shawl), one wrapped around her waist falling all the way down to her ankles, another over her woollen sweater and tied in a knot just over her chest. Her head is wrapped in a headscarf of the same pattern and colour design as the lesos. In a country where the default fashion style is dark and dull hooded jackets and boots, she stands out like a peacock fanning its tail feathers.

She is now standing in front of the pay point about 10 metres away from me. She has a branded shopping bag strapped on her shoulder and she reaches under her armpit to fetch items from its depths. I recognise the Nairobi-blue brand colors of the Albert Heijn supermarket chain. Her manner is nonchalant which leaves me conflicted. I am trying to be culturally appropriate and to ascertain that this elderly African woman is not having any challenge finding her way to the next destination.  Yet, I am restrained because this is the Netherlands, the land of mind-your-own-business and don’t look me in the eye. Overly polite gestures are thought of as insincere and put on.

Her stout short build, her firm belly bulge and dark wry face is a familiar presence. One that I had met throughout my life, in rural market places in the early morning spreading out their  fresh vegetables by the roadside or at funeral wakes, singing gospel hymns with the choir under a tarpaulin tent cover, facing a coffin on a chilly night, in the village.

The leso, also known as the khanga is a traditional rectangular shaped textile that is worn by women in East Africa. They come in an assortment of intricately patterned and colourful designs, and sometimes with a cautionary message, a Swahili proverb, written on one of its sides. The leso is a ridiculously versatile garment. It can function as a ground cover for sitting outside on the grass, a baby carrier for a working mother, a pouch to store valuables, a towel and a blanket. Only that I never imagined its function as a shawl for the cold in the early winter weather.

Kenyan oraturist and artist Mshai Mwangola, once called it, the cloth that speaks, and these lesos were speaking to me, transporting me back in time and place, to a world that was thousands of miles away from here.

The woman in a leso seems to be struggling with the pay station where one tops up the balance on their bus card. Maybe she needs the language of instruction changed? I begin to summon fresh courage to approach and politely ask whether she needs any assistance.

Then I notice that someone else had beaten me to it and I find myself getting possessive.  Everything about this individual looks disheveled. He has on a layered faded green khaki jacket with deformed pockets.

I had seen this man earlier, squatting with his back against the wall and I thought that was an odd position to be in, on a Saturday afternoon in this upmarket location. There is an air of despondency around him and I get an even stronger urge to intervene.  But he is already assisting her and fiddling with the pay point.

I notice his height. He must be Dutch, for they are a tall people who I think of as the Dinka of Europe. He is also gangly and he towers over the woman in a leso. I also notice that he has a lit cigarette in his free hand and that only serves to trouble me further.

Didn’t he know that this is a cultural faux pas? You never smoke in front of an elderly woman? Jesus Christ!!! Where are your manners?

This conversation is all going on in my head and I make no attempt to move in their direction, sparing only the occasional glance in order not to appear overly interested in the affairs of the woman in a leso.

She continues to speak to him as he fiddles with the machine and after a short while, it appears the problem has been resolved. Then, I see the tall man hand the old lady a lighter and she proceeds to extract a half smoked cigarette, that she lights up, taking a long drag like a smoker who just got off a 10 hour flight from Perth to Johannesburg.

The tall man resumes his earlier posture by the pay point.

The woman in a leso continues puffing away without a hurry in the world. Three young Asian women walking past her, frown disapprovingly. One even makes an attempt to sweep away with her hand, the cigarette smoke wafting up their path.

Two buses arrive in tandem. The 347 and the 348. As I wait for the passengers to disembark, I notice the woman in the leso talking to the driver as if seeking clarification. I think she has a firm authoritative voice but since I am out of earshot, I cannot make out what is said or catch her accent. After a minute, I see her walking back and she enters the 348, the same bus I am in.

The long red bus takes off, riding low and snaking smoothly around the roundabouts. At every next bus stop, the automatic doors open with a hissing sound and cold air from outside drifts into the bus. The passengers are subjected to routine recorded health safety announcements in both Dutch and English, “Please wear your face masks properly’’.

The woman in a leso has her mask under her nose and she is standing even though there are two empty seats next to her. One hand grips the railing firmly and she appears to be familiar with the rhythms of the bus, her feet steady and swaying with a fluidity I was not expecting.

The next stop is a narrow street lined with old trees with knotted trunks. The electronic signboard in the bus reads Kalfjeslaan. The bus stops for some time as the driver has to put out a ramp for an elderly lady in a wheelchair to disembark, so I take a moment to look at my surroundings.  On the right side of the bus stop there is an aged church building in red brick with a tall bell tower next to it. On the opposite side across the road, I see a brown bar, a corner liquor store and next to it, a coffee shop named the Border. There is a motley mix of people standing in the queue facing the bold green signage of the coffee shop.

Then the woman in a leso appears in my view walking to join the queue with the same calmness as when I first set my eyes on her. I find myself chuckling under my face mask because I would never have guessed that the woman in a leso, the old lady I desperately wanted to assist, was a disciple of cannabis.

I wish I had caught her eye, standing at ease in that queue to the coffee shop. I would have told her…I know you are a complete stranger but I know you. You are my aunty from the village, the defiant one. The one who rolls her own cigarettes, smokes laced tobacco, drinks the local gin and the men, do not walk on her wrong side. You have probably refused to accept Christ as your personal saviour and do not have a single bone of affectation in your body. You are from the league of badly behaved women who were shunned by society because they were not demure and avoided because they only speak the truth.

Every village has one. They may be disparaged as social misfits, openly loathed but secretly, they are admired because they are no longer afraid to be themselves in a society where people prefer to hide behind facades of good behaviour.

This piece was first published on oyungapala.com

Continue Reading

Trending