My first encounter with Kenya’s HIV/AIDS pandemic was during the 1989 Nairobi Agricultural Show. My dad’s eldest brother, Baba Amos, invited me to accompany him and some of his kids to the event. The Agricultural Show of Kenya has been a mainstay of Nairobi’s social scene for the last half century. Living in Gikambura, going to the ASK was a big ass deal! This was a trip that endowed you with major street cred.
Just imagine, you’d take a bus to town, dressed in your best outfit from the previous Christmas season. Getting on the bus, on its own, would already make you the recipient of serious envy from your village counterparts. Then of course, once you got to town you’d get to view tall buildings – skyscrapers that seemed to sway with the wind when you looked up. These views made for stories you could use to shut your buddies up as you displayed how suave you were. And then there was the food. French fries, more popularly known as chips, soda, and candy were all delicacies that you could look forward to on a trip to town. Finally, the ASK was well known for its gaudy paraphernalia. You’d come home with sunglasses – a novelty in the village – paper sun visors that were attached to your head using a rubber band, and if you were really lucky, perhaps a cheap, brightly colored watch.
Heading back home from the ASK, one also always brought back brightly colored posters. This time round, I came back armed with blood red ads about HIV, its spread, and the use of condoms. Sex, and STDs, didn’t particularly make much sense to me, but I could appreciate the fear with which adults around me discussed this new disease. Within days, the ABCs of combating HIV/AIDS – Abstinence, Be faithful, or Condomize – were plastered all over our tin metal walls, pasted using a sticky, pancake-like mixture of wheat flour and cold water.
I spent much of the 90s reading Parents magazine. I relished the portrait sketches that the monthly journal published for its adult audience. While there was nothing overtly pornographic about its content, Parents regularly discussed sex – especially as it pertained to the lives of heterosexual married couples.
It is here that writers informed me that HIV/AIDS was an STD. Adding this knowledge to what we were learning in Home Science – a school subject that taught young Kenyan pupils how to be better domestic managers – I began to understand the implications of the disease. It is here, too, that I read how the remains of those who had succumbed to the virus, especially in the early, scary years, were wrapped up in plastic bags and hurriedly buried by the government. There was much shame and terror in these tales, and I returned to them often. I could soon match colorful cover to gory details in the content within. I re-read the names of the participants in these sagas of the AIDS epidemic and simultaneously sympathized, even as I relished my voyeur position vis-a-vis their horror.
A majority of students who successfully complete the Kenya Certificate of Primary Education (KCPE) have at one point or another encountered the following prompt for their English composition: “The Day I Went to the City.” This theme is especially a staple for English teachers outside the major urban areas. Going to the metropolis is an event worth memorializing using grade 6 language skills. Often, to score really well, a student must inject a profusion of bombastic words, as well as archaic sayings and expressions. If you truly wish to get an A, begin somewhere along the lines of, “Feeling as happy as a king, I whistled like a lark, and left my family flabbergasted at my excitement.” Suffice it to say that Ernest Hemingway’s simple prose would have garnered him a fail, and possibly lashes on his backside.
With me, (this is another staple of Kenyan English – a consequence of our varied multilingual heritage) I was not particularly amused on one of my first visits to Nairobi CBD. I was around 6 and had accompanied my mom to town so I could visit the dentist. An employee of the soon-to-be-defunct Kenya National Assurance Ltd. mom was entitled to health insurance for herself and family. A benefit of this, if you wish to call it that, is that I got to visit the dentist regularly. This time round we were dealing with potential cavities, and looking at how my teeth were already developing out of line. Having lost my milk teeth, my new teeth needed to be perfect. The numbing injection, the drilling, and the fillings were only worth the discomfort because I later got to choose a slice of cake at the upscale Thorn Tree Hotel. Talk about paradox – walking out of the dentist’s office only to add more cavity-causing sugar into my diet.
Mum had to go back to work for the afternoon. However, I couldn’t simply hang around the office till it was time to head back home. The solution was to speak with one of the drivers/conductors that she knew on the Nairobi-Gikambura route and ask them to keep an eye on me as I rode back home alone. This was big boy stuff! I looked forward to sharing my adventure with kids back at home; I’d get to explain how I’d taken the bus, ridden all the way to Gikambura on my own, and managed to get home safely.
I sat by the window, looking out at trees and buildings sped by. I could recognize some of the towns and villages we passed by: Satellite, where my cousins lived, Kawangware, Dagoretti Center, and finally Thogoto. I could certainly recognize the big “Welcome to Gikambura” sign that Sportman Cigarettes had out up as you approached the town. I got off the bus just a few meters from where uncles Njoro and Martin used to take their homemade vehicles for a ride. Back then, this was a sloping tarmacked road where wooden go-karts could speed down, often attaining speeds of up to 40mph. The two of them, thick as thieves, would ignore warnings about dangerous this thrill seeking was. My grandma could only imagine what would happen if the two, speeding downhill at hair-raising speeds, met head-on with a passenger bus. The potential fatalities made my grandma very strict about Njoro not going on these adventures. She shouldn’t have bothered. More than once she caught him flying down the slope on yet another go-kart invention. Thankfully, they both survived boyhood with no broken limbs but many a scratch.