My birthday is flamboyantly controversial. My parents are sure they brought me into the world on the 7th of June thirty years ago but the government of Kenya decided that I was born six days earlier, on June the 1st, and my official documents say so. That is why my fellow nurses at the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh threw a surprise birthday party for me on the 1st. Just after the breast cancer diagnosis. But they do not know about the diagnosis. They need to wait.
It is 11h03 British Summertime (13h03 EAT). I am not thinking how wonderful it is that I was born. I am worried that I might die. I am in the waiting bay at the Edinburgh Breast Unit of the Western General Hospital. Last week I was told I had breast cancer, but nobody could confirm the stage and grade yet. I was asked to wait for the results of the fine needle aspiration (FNA) biopsy.
An FNA happens when doctors want to get slivers of tissue from an organ or a mass to find out what type of cells the organ has. Or, simply put, to study that organ in finer detail. When I came here last week, they sedated my left breast then asked me to wait as the anaesthetic knocked my boob out. Then the specialized therapist took out bits and pieces of the swelling inside my breast. A clinical support worker applied pressure on my breast to stop the bleeding. Then I was told to wait.
I seem to be doing a lot of that lately, waiting. I am waiting in this bay for my 11h15 appointment with Mr J., my breast cancer surgeon. I arrived fifteen minutes ago. I forgot my appointment card at home. The medical receptionists do not seem to mind. This is a cancer unit. There are more worrying things than forgotten appointment cards.
There are a few of us here. I can count ten women and two men. Both men brought their spouses. One is in a purple and white checked shirt, and he seems uninterested in his wife’s conversation. The checked shirt has caught my attention. It is a pattern favoured by men from central Kenya. All he needs is the signature baseball cap that Kikuyu men wear and he could be a Kamau or Njoroge. He is playing some game on his iPad as he nods absent-mindedly to whatever his wife is saying.
Most of us are on our gadgets. There is an unspoken sense of apprehension. We choose to speak to our phones and not each other. We want to cling to a sense of normalcy. For the current generation, normal comes in a small box with a keypad, a camera and attention deficit. We have no idea how to speak to real human beings.
People keep streaming in, more women than men. Breast cancer is more common in women than in men. I see it here. More women come in. The seats are now all occupied, and I give mine up for an elderly woman who has just come in, huffing and puffing on her walking frame. Dear God, I think to myself, just how common is breast cancer here in Edinburgh?
There are women from all walks of life here. I see a Chinese woman, or Korean, I can never tell the difference. Another is Filipino; I know because she has just answered her phone in Tagalog, the national language of the Philippines. Several of the women are Caucasian. I am the only black girl in the waiting area.
Where are the black people in this waiting bay? Did they come in yesterday? Perhaps they will come tomorrow? Why am I the only African in this waiting area? Probably Mr J. will tell me that he has made a very big mistake and that there is no cancer in my left breast. It could be that I should not be here. In fact, since I began this cancer journey not once have I met an African.
A bespectacled doctor has called in a Mrs Frame. Mrs. Frame is the woman I gave my seat to. She is using a tripod frame to walk. I see a pun here and I think it is funny. But this is a cancer department. We don’t laugh here. But I feel a smile take form on my lips. Thankfully, the face mask I am wearing hides my amusement.
There is a six-foot-tall woman near the exit of the waiting bay. The waiting bay has an entry and an exit. We come in through the entry where the medical receptionist is perched on her chair like a patient mother hen and we leave the bay through the exit when we are called in to see the doctor.
There is a water dispenser near the exit. The tall woman looks young. Thirty-something young-ish. Her presence gives me hope. That I am not the only young woman here. She moves restlessly on her lanky, sun-kissed legs. She is wearing a pair of booty shorts because the summer sun is here with us. She keeps tossing her mass of bronze of hair as she scrolls through her phone like someone looking for social media notifications.
It is like we are all keeping her from more important things in her extremely busy life. She looks like she will make a run for it. I cannot blame her. I too would run. If I could run fast enough to escape a breast cancer diagnosis, I would. She is pacing. A sure sign of anxiety. I am tempted to either join her or stop her. I too would rather be anywhere else but here. I need to be with my dialysis patients. I want to continue being a nurse, not this patient waiting in this lounge.
Two clinical support workers enter the bay, sweeping it with their roving eyes as if looking for someone or something. Then they leave. I do not like this. I wish they would speak. Which reminds me of my own practice as a nurse. How often I go to the waiting lounge at the dialysis centre where I work, use my eyes to scan the area then leave quietly. I make a mental note to change that. I will be engaging the patients and the waiting relatives. I will even be telling them that I am just looking for someone, or something. The silent eye-scan is unsettling.
As if on a surgically precise cue, one of them pops back in and asks if the room is too hot. A middle-aged woman in an unremarkable pair of jeans says the room is hot. The clinical support worker promises to turn the thermostat a degree or two lower. I do not care about the temperature. I care that she has spoken to us. That we are not just waiting slots but real human beings with varying repertoires of cancerous anxieties.
For a moment I feel sleepy. I have been writing on my smartphone to keep myself occupied. I am exhausted. I have not slept well since they gave me the diagnosis a week ago. My nights have been screaming terror and yet, in the noise, God has been roaring. He gave me pen and paper. I have been using them to bleed out my fears. But now I need my bed. It is way past my appointment time, which is not surprising given how thorough these specialists are.
“Miss Meina,” a familiar voice pierces through the silence. I quickly put my phone in my purse and stand up. It is Mr. J, my breast surgeon. He cannot pronounce my surname properly, and he calls me “Meina” like many white people do. I do not mind. As long as they spell it correctly.
After profuse apologies for keeping me waiting, Mr J. starts breaking things down.
“We are lucky that the Stage is confirmed to be 1 and the tumour is in grade. . .” he starts. Nurse A, the breast cancer nurse assigned to me, joins us in the consulting room.
“We will need to run more tests to determine the best form of surgery to remove the tumour. Have you ever heard of gene mutation?”
Everyone has BReast Cancer (BRCA) genes. There are two types, BRCA 1 and BRCA2. These genes are protective in that they stop the cells of the breast from growing out of control. Sometimes we inherit faulty ones. Or something in our environment causes them to change and mutate. This places us at risk of developing breast cancer. Even then, only 5 per cent of all diagnosed breast cancer cases are due to a faulty gene.
“If we find faulty genes Catherine, we might have to start thinking about double mastectomy with breast reconstruction.” Mr J. says matter-of-factly. Sweet King David and the choir of heaven! Did he just say total removal of both breasts at thirty? What exactly are you telling me? What about the children I hope to bear someday? What about my dreams of motherhood? Could this disease have come at a worse time? An unwanted boob job? I am not ready for this conversation.
I stand up and head for the sink in the room. I am torn between vomiting and screaming. I settle for crying. The tears, hot, bitter, angry tears roll down my face. I don’t bother to wipe them away.
Mr J. rubs my back as Nurse A hands me tissues to blow my nose. More blood samples are taken for these complicated tests. I cry some more. Now I have to wait for the results of these tests. The waiting never ends. The fear of the unknown creeps up to me like a menacing nightclub bouncer.
My battle with breast cancer has taught me two things. How to be afraid and how to wait. I do not lock out my fears. I invite them in, make them a cuppa tea and then use my fork to poke them in the eyes. I no longer wait while doing nothing. Doing nothing is the chief ingredient in the meal of overthinking. I wait while writing and praying. I wait while reading and researching. I wait, ultimately, while clinging onto the hope that the God of the mountain is still God in the valley. Afraid and tired, I wait.
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We Just Eat
There is a stereotype that conflates the image of an absurdly full platter with most people’s thoughts about the Luyia community.
A few weeks ago, a friend of mine randomly suggested something to me just after we’d passed a roadside grill on our way to Kawangware Market.
Tukule ulimi. Let’s eat tongue.
I obliged, both of us turning back to the spot where chunks of meat of different shapes and sizes were sizzling on an oily black grill, the tongue among them, sending smoke upwards, dripping juice. . . let me stop there. We ate the tongue and proceeded to the market. There we sat on a bench next to a chipo guy frying potato chips and crisps, his pan tilted at an angle to fit on the jiko. This we wanted a taste of. As we waited to be served, I suddenly became self-conscious.
“Do I eat too much?”
It’s well over a decade since my primary school peers and I walked to a neighbouring village to listen to the District Officer’s address on the occasion of a national holiday. The hot equatorial afternoon would present a challenge to the day’s main task – the D.O’s speech, and his token to students in the division. As we waited for the D.O. An elderly Luyia man stood up to address the crowd, proceeding to say something spiteful about my village. I remember the emotion in his words. It was strange. It felt like he had a problem with that part of the location I was from, or the fact that people from there were present. He said, “I do not like the name Nyang’ori, I do not like the name Nyang’ori because back when we were children the Luos used to refer to people from that side of our location as Jokuo Nyang’ori.”
At that time, I was still a pupil in primary school, in my final year. I had strong loyalties but could not do much to assert my position. So I kept my cool. Then recently, a song sneaked its way into my head and took me back to that time.
There’s a song that Luhya children sang to their mothers while skipping around the homestead in play. While their mothers prepared the fields in anticipation of the coming rains, they would sing:
Mama mbe zimbindi nzie kuminza
Nzie nzie nzie,
The first part of the song is sang to the mother asking for cowpeas to scatter in the field. The second part of the song goes:
Kiravura kitiezo, ngani inzara yakwita
Na nunyori kanyama, ushiezanga nogonga
Here, it seems to be the mother responding to the child saying, if it were not for kitiezo – a salient shrub that grows wild in the field – we would have died of hunger. The second line is a general observation that if one happened to find meat, they would grind on the millstone with joy.
In his book Western Kenya Historical Texts, Gideon S. Were explains that the name Nyang’ori, by which the Terik are known, dates to the severe famine of 1907 that led Teriks from the Nyang’ori area to steal cowpeas from the fields of the Joluo. As a result, the Joluo nicknamed them “stealers of cowpeas”, Nyang’ori.
Were notes that the traditions of the Terik confirm the fact that the name Nyang’ori was a nickname given to them by the Joluo due to the community’s habit of stealing their cowpeas. While still in primary school, my friends would always remind me that our village once went by a Terik name, Matrin. Nyang’ori seems to be a recent addition in the history of my village.
Now history confirms as factual the basis of that old man’s speech from my childhood. It gives space for whatever emotion he must have felt while expressing his feelings about my village – a century-old grudge. And a century might be a long time to still hold resentment over stolen food, but not long enough to completely erase the influence that the customs that defined relations in the time of our ancestors have on our present lives.
There is a stereotype that conflates the image of an absurdly full platter with most people’s thoughts about the Luyia community. For the longest time advertising, and more recently social media platforms, have reinforced this stereotype with performances of Luyias devouring huge amounts of food in one sitting. Without understanding that absurdity is one of the mechanisms that promote visibility on social media, one might easily be led to believe that a Luyia chewing a whole chapati in one mouthful on TikTok actually does that in real life. Or that a teenager decimating a kilogram of ugali on his own in front of a camera is a normal event in their homestead. Any Luyia with experience will tell you how that makes no economic sense in the village.
This is that part where you, the reader, struggle to detach this image from stories you’ve heard your Luyia friends tell about some of their interesting experiences back at home, upcountry.
A good number of Luyias really are guilty of contriving to always have the better share of certain meals. Luyia men in particular, have historically benefited from traditions that denied women the opportunity to fully enjoy chicken, as some parts were only served to the older male members of the household, the most infamous prohibition being that of emondo, the gizzard.
There is no concrete reason why the ban existed except that the emondo was meant for vasakuru, the elders only, as my aunt tells me. My efforts to reach an elder for an explanation about why the emondo was reserved solely for them were met with reticence. An online group that discusses a wide range of issues on the subject of Luyia culture and life—known on YouTube as the Luyia Fun Group—offers an interesting reason why women are prohibited from eating emondo in one of their videos. They claim that the emondo was found (by the elders) to bear a striking resemblance to a certain part of a woman’s body, and therefore rendered women unfit to eat it because of the homosexual imagery suggested. If there is any truth to this claim, and knowing our ancestors for who they were, the ban must have been a metaphor for their stand on a conversation many of them were obviously not ready to have.
Today, this metaphor has clearly been stripped of its latency. The stand it sought to soften remains in the community though, an oxymoron of the idea that queer manifestations of sexuality are imports of the western world to Africa. There’s still great denial of the existence of homosexuality in African communities, and where denial has failed cloak and dagger have been employed. Dissenting arguments usually range from homosexuality being against traditional African values, to it being unchristian, and most recently, a product of our continent’s interaction with Western culture on social media.
In my village, institutions dating back to the time before any contact was made with the Western world expose the contradiction in this dissent. During the time of my initiation into manhood under the Tiriki institution of idumi, manhood, one of the initiates in my rikura, age set, had long been known to have homosexual inclinations but faced no violence based on his nature during the whole period of seclusion. One would expect that such an institution rooted in African tradition would be extremely hostile in its attempts to correct the unmanly aspects of an initiate, in imparting its conception of manhood to a male member of the community.
In the mid-1920s, when the Quakers were establishing their mission station at Kaimosi, Luyia women in the larger Vihiga area were not allowed to eat eggs. This culture prevailed until the intervention of men who had just gained literacy from the mission set up by the Friends Quakers at Kaimosi. Yohana Amugune, who was among the first men to convert to Christianity at the Friends Kaimosi mission, went back to his village in Chavakali to spread the gospel. One of the reforms he sought to which he sought to apply his new knowledge and belief was the eggs issue. In his essay Yohana Amugune and the Maragoli published in the Biographical Essays on Imperialism and Collaboration in Colonial Kenya compiled by B.E Kipkorir, J.M. Mwenesi writes that upon returning from the mission in Kaimosi, Yohana Amugune broke the taboo and made no secret about letting his wife eat eggs, previously the preserve of men.
Christianity seems to have revolutionized food culture in Vihiga by pushing for the full inclusion of women at the dining table. On the other hand, it required them to forget crucial items on their menu, such as ugali (a stiff porridge) made from traditional grains.
Azangu, a historian I met at the National Archives while researching this story, had interesting thoughts about this matter. Azangu grew up around the Kaimosi mission in the ‘80s. The insights he shared with me suggest that the introduction of religion might have had a lot to do with the disappearance of certain foods and the adoption of others. Azangu told me how the Friends Quakers missionaries in Kaimosi grew maize to cater for their food needs, fostering the gradual shift from the traditional staples of sorghum and millet to maize among the new converts. One of the contributing factors to this shift was that maize was a bigger grain that was not as labour-intensive to cultivate and harvest as sorghum and millet. However, the biggest attraction came from the social benefits guaranteed by the shift rather than the economic incentives.
“During that time, the white ugali made from maize flour was associated with Christianity and modernity, this directly translated to higher status. . . The preparation of the brown ugali was pretty difficult, it required a higher level of skill to prepare compared to the white ugali.”
Azangu’s thoughts on Luyia food culture confirmed to me the idea that, perhaps what is viewed, and has been viewed for long time as an obsession with food, is rather a social structure that has embedded food security within its order – the order being efficient enough to sustain its people and itself, but also enough to be viewed as exploitative by outsiders who might not fully understand the culture.
In response to a question I had posed about whether Luyias really eat as much as the stereotypes suggest, Azangu said, “We do not eat that much, we just cook enough. And if you find yourself finishing all the food you’ve cooked, you are still not content.”
I find his remarks very comical but still legitimate. Food security has always been embedded in the social structure of the Luyia community. We have always had a culture of sharing food that bestows a feast-like quality on every meal prepared – we are not afraid of having guests join us at meals, we do not want to have to be awkward with those who find us mid-meal, and so we prepare even for those who are not present.
So, rather than being a love for food, for Luyias, it is a love of life; how could one separate the concept of life from food? That’s why Luyia funerals might be mistaken for feasts because they are actually a celebration of life. When the Keima drum is beaten, preceding the funeral procession, prompting the villagers to find their way to the home of the bereaved, it also asks them to fill their baskets with produce and carry them to the feast they are heading to. Most strangers cringe at the sight of villagers packed inside the homestead of the bereaved whenever a villager dies, being served mountains of ugali in plates on the verge of breaking from the weight of their contents. But a wise Luyia with an idea of what a functional Luyia society looks like or once looked like, appreciates the role of the dead to the living. They might validly argue that the departed is playing their last role on earth, giving life to not just one person, but to the whole community.
The departed deserve an opportunity to leave with a bang!
The song in my head is a song many Luyia children know. It is a song contemplating scarcity while it drips of joy. A song whose significance might be considered by many as just an historical record of emotion during a time of scarcity – a grave omission of an important message that the song seeks to relay to all children and adults with access to it: Prepare for better days, for worse times have existed, and always remember to be joyful.
Apart from the disappearance of the grinding stone and the loss of prestige of the white ugali, a lot has changed over the past century in Luyia food culture. From the emondo coming to resemble only itself – part of a chicken – to be eaten by women, to eggs becoming a normal thing for women to eat. The only constant has been rikuvi, the vegetable that grows when cowpea seeds are scattered in the fields. The cowpea seeds that the Nyang’ori people went down to Nyanza to steal more than a century ago, seeds that earned them their name.
Perhaps, the strange emotion that made the old man declare his dislike of the name Nyang’ori was due to his inability to reckon with the fact that time had erased its negative connotations but had left the name and its history intact.
This really is strange.
On our way back from Kawangware market, my friend and I happened to pass by the same spot where we had shared the tongue and overheard a woman asking those in her company, Tukule roho? Shall we eat heart?
We exchanged glances, smiled, our tacit agreement not after all exclusive to us, nor our secret cravings.
Everyone loves to eat, and to share food.
Luyias are no exception. We just eat.
The Hidden Lives of the Trees of Amsterdam
Contemplating nature and falling back on the wisdom of trees to guide me through the unknown.
There was genuine cause for angst in the early days of the COVID lockdowns as the pandemic spread unabated throughout Europe. I was a new arrival in the Netherlands, marooned at home, working as a remote curator-at-large for the online publication The Elephant. While I appeared stoic to my team based in Nairobi, I could not shake off the feelings of uncertainty. I had a child who had just learned how to walk and my wife had started a new and demanding job.
Amsterdam was ghostly. Trepidation beset the city and it seemed as though people had gone into hibernation. On most days, in between Zoom calls to Nairobi, I would stare out of my home office window at a large weeping willow tree that stood on the edge of a canal, feeling a loss of control.
One morning, I noticed a flock of green ring-necked parakeets perched on the willow tree. I had not seen those birds since the days of my childhood in the Kenyan countryside and their appearance in a foreign country was serendipitous. In times of crisis one is attuned to signs from nature and in those familiar birds and in the willow tree, I found a sense of hope and belonging.
A friend from Kenya who arrived in Amsterdam around the same period also talked about the silent assurance he had discovered in trees. He worked the night shift. For months during those cold days, while his wife and children were away, sitting alone in the house staving off depression, he drew strange comfort from contemplating the sturdy nature of the single tree that grew in his backyard.
When you come from Kenya, winters are survived, chalked down and added to the résumé.
Having grown up under the tutelage of a father who was an avid forester, it was natural that I should fall back on the wisdom of trees to guide me through the unknown. But this awareness would unfold gradually as the trees of Amsterdam revealed their hidden lives.
There is a popular museum in the centre of Amsterdam, on Prinsengracht Street, dedicated to Anne Frank’s life, her famous diary and the secret annex. Anne Frank was born in Frankfurt, Germany, and her Jewish family had fled persecution for the relative safety of Amsterdam. When the Germans invaded and occupied the Netherlands in 1940 and began deporting Jews to death camps, Anne Frank went into hiding. During her two years in hiding, Anne Frank turned to writing to pass time, journaling not just the daily events but also her thoughts and feelings.
Anne Frank’s father Otto survived the war, found his daughter’s diary and it was eventually published in 1947 under the title The Secret Annex.
There is a passage in the diary where Anne writes about a tree, a white horse chestnut that she used to stare at from her window in the attic. That huge tree standing in the courtyard garden, 170 years old, was a beacon of freedom, longing and hope.
Tragically, Anne and her sister Margot were arrested and deported to the Auschwitz concentration camp where they were separated from their parents. The sisters were taken to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp where, under the unhygienic conditions, they both succumbed to typhus and died in February of 1945.
When I went off in search of the famous tree that Anne Frank wrote about, I found that it had fallen 10 years earlier in 2010 and all that remained was a stump. I found a connection with the story of the horse chestnut tree in Anne’s diary because trees were one of the first signposts that I used to navigate the newness of this city.
There is another tree that is located in Bijlmermeer in the south-east of Amsterdam that is not as famous as Anne Frank’s tree. Its story is much more recent. In 1992, an El Al cargo aircraft en route to Israel lost its engines while trying to circle back to Schiphol airport for an emergency landing. It crashed into Groeneveen and Klein-Kruitberg, two multi-storied apartment buildings, killing 43 people, most caught unawares in their homes innocently winding down the day.
There were speculations that the death toll may have been higher as many undocumented and unregistered people were not accounted for following the accident. On the site, facing a new apartment block, sits the tree that saw everything, a living witness to the Bijlmerramp air disaster.
Amsterdam is a green city and trees are everywhere. The canals are lined with old elms and practically all city roads and neighbourhoods are fronted by straight lines of trees, usually of one species. The tenement buildings may appear to have the same aesthetic similarity of the predominantly red or grey brick walls. But in the courtyards, hidden from street view, are lush green gardens and trees.
I was soon able to guess the age of a neighbourhood by looking at the size of the trees growing in it. I also started to notice that most of the trees in Amsterdam grow straight. Crooked trees are a rare sight.
Many mightn’t be bothered by this little detail but I began to inquire about the stories behind the trees of Amsterdam. A tree is crooked because it adapts to nature and the forces it encounters, but the breadth of uniformity I encountered in the Dutch landscape was an indication that nature had been colonised.
The Amsterdamse Bos (The Amsterdam Forest) that is located in the southwest of Amsterdam, sitting on the border between Amsterdam and the Amstelveen municipality, is a prime example of this. It is an imposing city park, of a scale and order that I find intriguing. Measuring 1000 acres, it is about the size of Nairobi’s Karura Forest, with one unique distinction; all the trees were planted by hand and its all features, including its artificial lakes and solitary hill, are products of grand design. There is also within it a naturist area where nude sunbathing is allowed.
Amsterdamse Bos began as a government work relief effort to deal with the economic crisis of the 1930s. Today it is a functional park, a natural landscape designed for recreation and relaxation that draws in 4 million visitors every year.
I remarked to a Dutch friend over a cup of coffee that the Amsterdamse Bos felt like a big green arcade. To which he shrugged and said, ‘’Poof! You think this orderly, you should go to Switzerland. They are worse than us.’’
Then, as if in admission that he was accustomed to unnaturally neat nature, he recalled a road trip he had taken in Canada a few years earlier. As they drove through the spectacular Boreal forests, both he and his wife agreed that the forests were magnificent. . . if only the Canadians would clean up the forest floor and keep it tidy.
Another Dutch friend took me on a tour of the Vondelpark in Amsterdam, to a spot over a white wooden bridge from where I had a direct view of a tall fountain in the middle of a serene pond with a leafy tree line as its backdrop, spraying water high into the air.
“You see that picture. . . it was designed to be a paradise ideal and nature has been conquered for human splendour with man as the sole animal in it.”
Indeed, it was getting harder to distinguish between what was natural and what was artificial. The Netherlands is a waterproofed country and it is easy to forget that most of the country lies below sea level. It is a country that conquered the waters after a long struggle against nature and 17 per cent of the country’s landmass is reclaimed from the sea.
This is why “God created the earth but the Dutch made the Netherlands’’ is a well turned phrase.
In an effort to know my neighbourhood and meet the locals, I joined the Knotgroep of Uithoorn, green volunteer effort that operates in a municipality on the outskirts of Amsterdam. The group of volunteers are all Dutch pensioners with an average age of 60, and there are as many men as there are women. As I park my bicycle, I receive a series of hoi, Dutch for hi, pronounced with much emphasis.
After a briefing by the group leader, the pitchforks and rakes are distributed and we walk to a privately-owned polder that is used as a paddock on the border of a small lake called Zijdelmeer. Mown grass is strewn all over the paddock. The ground underneath the soaked grass is wet and I can smell manure. Our task is to pile the cut grass into haystacks. The work takes effort and jackets are soon thrown off. Why do they subject these senior citizens to such strenuous work?
I ask why this work is not done by machine given that the Dutch have a machine solution for every task to be done in nature. I am informed that the stacks of grass we are preparing are nesting places where small harmless snakes can hatch and thrive. It also leaves room on the ground for wild cranberries to grow. Such delicate work, necessary to balance the ecosystem, can only be done by hand.
The group continues to work silently and meticulously, and then suddenly, excited voices come from one end. We gather around to find out the cause of all the excitement.
Someone has found a frog.
I am puzzled so I turn to my group leader, a tall Dutch man called Bill.
“Why are we getting excited about finding an amphibian in nature?”
‘’We don’t have frogs here anymore,’’ and he recounts the story of his youth and of a time when nights were filled with a cacophony of croaking. But since the arrival of the red swamp crayfish, an invasive species that feeds on aquatic plant and animal life, the nights have gone silent.
It then occurs to me that for all the canals that surround the neighbourhoods, I never hear any frogs croaking at night.
‘’We are just trying to bring back nature.”
I want to tell Bill about the irony of Nairobi, the former Green City in the Sun that has declared war on trees in an effort to modernise its infrastructure while Amsterdam seeks to return to its natural past and where trees are valued as sites of memory. But I don’t voice my thoughts.
Mathare: Urban Bastion of the Struggle Against Oppression in Kenya
Many only know it as the slum located next to the country’s largest mental health facility, but Mathare has a rich history of resistance against oppression by the state dating back to colonial times.
I have lived in Mathare since I was four years old and I have seen it grow from a slum with a medium population density to become Kenya’s most densely populated area with over 68,000 people per square kilometre.
I began my schooling in the early 2000s at Action Child Mobilization Centre, a local private school that was nothing more than a shack built of iron sheets where we were taught by form four school leavers. In this part of Nairobi, qualifications did not matter and anybody could be a teacher as long as they had an average command of English. This was the best we could get. The different classes were scattered all over the neighbourhood, as it was not possible to find space for all the classrooms to be in one place. We became accustomed to learning while listening to loud music from neighbours’ houses and we sometimes did our exams while a couple was quarrelling and fighting next door. That was the environment we learned in.
As a resident since childhood, I can attest that despite the sad, depressing stories that come out of my Mathare, it is also a place of beautiful stories. Some of our best footballers and sports people honed their talents while training on our soil, people like football international Dennis Oliech and famed female boxer Conjestina Achieng. Mathare has also produced great musicians like Bahati, Willy Paul and Eko Dydda.
But the world does not get to hear about our success stories, knowing only about our struggles and the challenges we go through. When you mention Mathare to a random Kenyan, what comes to their mind is the Mathari Mental Hospital, Kenya’s only national and public psychiatric referral hospital that was established in 1901. Due to its close proximity to Mathare Valley, some people even have the audacity to ask why we live with “mad people”; they believe Mathare is for the mentally challenged and escapees from the hospital. I once tried to explain to a friend in high school that, just like anywhere else, only a few people in Mathare are mentally challenged. But he said, “Yes, every market has its own mad man, but Mathare is a market where all are mad.” I stopped talking to him. I was very angry and bitter about the picture painted of my home, the place that has nurtured me since I was four.
The stigma of coming from Mathare was so acute that, while in high school, I stopped telling other students where I grew up to avoid ridicule. Any wrong or “weird” answer would be attributed to my so-called upbringing with “mentally challenged people”. Most of them would back their highly opinionated statements with references to the violence witnessed during any general election, where Mathare youths are hired by rogue politicians to die for them on the streets.
Today I am writing the story of Mathare, the untold story that is unknown to many. Not out of anger or bitterness, but as a counter-narrative about the place I call home from a proud insider’s perspective. It is the beautiful story of a former quarry that became an urban bastion against oppression by the colonial government, and by the four regimes we have had in Kenya since independence.
I am writing this piece because only we can tell our story to the outside world. “The struggle of people against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting,” as Comrade Gacheke Gachihi of Mathare Social Justice Centre puts it.
Mathare did not start as a settlement for mental hospital escapees as some claim. Mathare emerged from what had been a stone quarry during the early years of colonial rule in the Pre-World War 1 (WW1) period. Most of the building stones and ballast used in the construction of the Eastleigh and Muthaiga residential areas and the Nairobi Central Business District were extracted from this big quarry. It is only after the First World War, in the early 1920s, that people started settling in Mathare. Some of the early settlers were from the areas around today’s City Park and Muthaiga that were then part of the larger Karura Forest, from where they were evicted by the colonial government. These prime areas were reserved for the white colonial elite and the former inhabitants were rounded up and concentrated in the low-laying areas, leading to the birth of Mathare and the mushrooming of the many slums in Nairobi’s Eastlands area.
The first evictees settled in the lower Pangani area that is separated from Mathari Hospital by River Mathare. This area that is today part of Mlango Kubwa and Lower Pangani was known as Kiamutisya. The different sections of Mathare were named after the headmen or leaders controlling them, like Kiamutisya and Kwa Kariuki. From there, the slum began to spread eastwards to Bondeni, then known as Kiandururu. Other areas such as Gitathuru, Mashimoni and Mathare 4A emerged gradually as the population burgeoned.
Mathare is now one of the most congested slums in Nairobi with over 500,000 residents concentrated in a mere 7.25 square kilometres. It is home to diverse ethnicities from all over the country, from as far away as Turkana in northern Kenya, and to foreign nationals from Uganda, Rwanda, and Tanzania.
Mathare is 8km from Nairobi CBD. This proximity, and its closeness to Eastleigh to the southwest and Muthaiga and Karura to the West, attracted Kenyans, particularly those from eastern and central Kenya, who came in search of jobs and settled in the area. This rural-urban migration created a cheap labour pool for the upmarket areas occupied by the settlers, as well as for the Asian community that resided in Eastleigh and Pangani. By the late 1920s, Mathare was home to several thousand Africans living in temporary makeshift houses made of wood, mud and other materials and working in the surrounding areas.
As the struggle against colonial rule began, Mathare emerged as the hub of anti-colonial organizing because of its strategic location. It slowly became the urban vanguard against the colonial government. Meetings to strategize how to disrupt the peaceful stay of the settlers in the country were planned in Mathare.
The agitation was amplified by the presence in their midst of radical elements who had fought alongside whites in both world wars. Residents started protesting against the punitive measures imposed on Africans, such as the hut tax, the kipande (identity document) and unfair urban zoning. The British felt threatened by the continued agitation and in 1952, at the start of the State of Emergency which was declared by the then Governor Sir Evelyn Baring, the colonial government razed down many houses in Mathare. Baring was reacting to intelligence that Mathare residents were supporting the Mau Mau, the nationalist movement fighting for Kenya’s independence. This did not deter Mathare residents; it only emboldened them to push further and Mathare continued to be the planning ground for Mau Mau activities.
It is during the active years of the Mau Mau (The Kenya Land and Freedom Army) struggle that Mathare became the crucible of anti-colonial action with the help of people like Pio Gama Pinto, who played a key role in uniting the different factions agitating for independence. Pinto was a Kenyan-born Goan who had studied in both Kenya and in Goa in India. After completing his studies in India, Pinto joined movements against Portuguese rule in Goa, which placed his life in danger and so he fled back to Kenya for his safety. In Kenya, he was the link between trade unions, the Mau Mau, lawyers and others involved in the fight against British rule in Kenya.
Workers from Karura and other areas would steal arms and other supplies from their white employers, which would be gathered and smuggled to the Aberdare and Mt. Kenya forests from where Mau Mau guerrillas were waging their war against the British.
After Kenya gained independence in 1963, the population of Mathare grew exponentially as more people flocked to the city. The first government of Jomo Kenyatta did not undertake any measures to improve the dire living conditions of the people of Mathare. The residents continued to live under the poor conditions that had existed since the colonial period. As the slum expanded, the residents were abandoned to their fate, despite the active and largely undocumented role they had played towards the attainment of Kenya’s independence.
This neglect of the people of Mathare continued under the Moi regime. During his 24 years in power, nothing was done to ensure planning, access to water and other basic services. In 1982, the residents of Mathare bore the brunt of the failed Kenya Air Force coup. The Moi government turned its anger on helpless and defenceless citizens, the majority of whom had no idea what was happening in the country. The military were unleashed on the residents like bloodthirsty dogs and houses were ransacked under the guise of searching for soldiers who had participated in the failed coup and whom it was alleged were being harboured in Mathare. The crackdown that followed in the wake of the failed coup left more than 200 civilians dead, the majority from Mathare, which is just across the road from Moi Air Base, the epicentre of the aborted coup attempt. Bodies were left lying in the streets and hundreds were maimed and injured. The damage was enormous, and the trauma would last peoples’ lifetimes.
The oppression has continued, but has never broken the resilience of the residents of Mathare, forged from a legacy of resistance. The neglect continued unabated under the Kibaki regime, and together with it, oppression from law enforcement agencies. An example that stands out is the infamous crackdown on Mungiki in Kosovo and other parts of Mathare between 6 and 9 June 2007. Those were tension-filled days as officers of the feared General Service Unit unleashed violence, rounded up citizens and demolished tens of shacks. The crackdown came after two police officers were killed and their guns stolen on the night of 4 June 2007. It was a terrible time to be a young man in the valley. Wearing dreadlocks only made things worse as they would use that to profile members of the banned Mungiki Sect. Young men were rounded up, made to lie on the streets, beaten and then forced to wade in the filthy and murky Mathare River in search of the arms that were supposedly dumped there. As though the demolitions and brutality meted on them was not enough, the police then executed more than 30 young men, some in broad daylight. The executions were carried out under the orders of the former Minister of Interior Security John Michuki and the former Inspector General of Police Gen. Muhammed Ali.
One day during that terrible week, shortly after our mid-morning break, the sound of gunshots reverberated around us. The police were firing tear gas grenades and our school was soon engulfed in smoke. With no water available, we washed our faces with the porridge in our mugs and as panic spread, some of my class six classmates tore through the iron sheets and scampered to the safety of their homes.
It is during this time that I witnessed a scene that has never left my mind. It is still as vivid as though it happened yesterday. A man was lying face down on the ground with some officers poking his back with their bayonets, those sharp knives fixed to the muzzles of their guns. The man was crying and pleading with the police and after a few minutes, gunshots rung through the air scattering the crowd that was watching from afar. I went back to the scene late in the afternoon and what I found was only blood-soaked soil. I have lived with that memory my whole life.
That same afternoon, I saw the Inspector General of Police criss-crossing the alleys and open trenches in the valley. It was very unusual to find a high-ranking government official in the deepest parts of Mathare. He was escorted by a contingent of heavily armed officers. Even at my young age, I knew that the next few days were going to be hell, and they were. The people of Mathare endured nights of violence at the hands of state agents and more people died. My two cousins, who had come to the city in search of jobs after finishing high school, had to be sneaked out before the door-to-door search that started with the start of the dusk to dawn curfew that had been imposed. The operation left more than 30 people dead, hundreds injured, demolished shanties, displaced people, and trauma. This kind of reaction by so-called law enforcers has also been witnessed during election times, where police officers act without regard for the sanctity and dignity of human life.
Uhuru Kenyatta’s Jubilee government has exacerbated the already precarious situation in Mathare. As poor youth, we have been criminalised by the same system that oppressed our grandfathers and our fathers. Young men spotting dreadlocks like those worn by Kenya’s freedom fighters are targeted for arbitrary arrest, extortion, killings and, as is the trend nowadays, enforced disappearances. According to Missing Voices, an organization that documents cases of arbitrary arrests, enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings, 105 people were killed or disappeared by police between January and July 2021. The majority of these killings and disappearances occurred in the low income neighbourhoods of Nairobi such as Mathare. It is quite common for a youth to be framed and accused of being in possession of marijuana – it is planted in their pockets during arrest – and end up disappearing at the hands of the police, only for their lifeless bodies to be found in the city morgue or dumped somewhere else.
I see the youth being terrorized every day in this valley. I have also been a victim of arbitrary arrest several times by the same officers who swore to protect us and uphold the constitution. I have lost classmates and friends to police bullets; the trend of extra-judicial executions continues unabated.
It is this injustice that led me to join the Ruaraka Social Justice Centre immediately after graduating from college instead of looking for an internship or finding a job.
A systematic approach is needed to deal with this systematic oppression of generations of Kenyans, first by the colonial government and the African Home Guards, and by their allies in the four post-independence regimes. One of the founders of the Mathare Social Justice Centre, Gacheke Gachihi saw this need and collaboratively established this community justice centre in the heart of Mathare, on the same grounds where the anti-colonial struggle was planned. As a visionary leader, Gachihi saw the need to form a network of social justice centres in the country that would coalesce around issues of social justice. The reactionary approach of one-day demonstrations has been replaced with a systematic approach: that of organizing the community, educating it and allowing the same community to liberate itself from the shackles of exploitation and oppression. Through this community organizing, of which I have been a part since 2019, the residents of Mathare are now cognizant of the power of a united people with a common goal.
With my pen and paper, I shall live to protect Mathare and its rich history and heritage that derives from the critical role it has played in organizing the masses and as a revolutionary bulwark against oppression in the colonial era and during successive regimes. The onus is now on my generation not to betray the struggle but to bring it to fruition.
Mathare is now home to various progressive groups such as the Mathare Youth Sports Association (MYSA), Mathare Roots, Mathare Green Movement and the Mathare Social Justice Centre (MSJC), the mother centre of the social justice centres movement in Kenya. Mathare is once again leading the struggle against oppression and it continues to play this role faithfully. The blood of our freedom fighters that was shed on our soil will continue to water the seeds of our freedom. Every time I walk along Mau Mau Road, from Mabatini to Mlango Kubwa in Mathare, I walk with my head held high knowing that I am walking on fertile ground, the home of past, current and future revolutionaries. The name Mathare is no longer a source of shame for me but a beacon of hope for the future for I now know that it means resilience. From Mathare to the world, the social justice movement is born. May the sacred torch of freedom fighters never dim but light the way to a socially just nation.
This article would not have been complete without contributions from Comrade Kimani Antony of Kiamaiko Community Social Justice Centre, Comrade Samuel Kiriro of Ghetto Foundation, Mr Zaangi of Muungano wa Wanavijiji and Comrade Gacheke Gachihi of Mathare Social Justice Centre
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