A Family on the Up & Up

We’d finally done it! With the purchase of a vehicle, we’d vaulted right into the heart of the Kenyan bourgeoisie circle. And it felt great. Never mind that the ‘car’ in question was a Nissan Caravan, primarily intended for use in mass transit services. It still represented the kind of mobility that we as a family felt was our birthright. Did my maternal grandma not travel to Israel in the early 60s and drive a Morris Mini? Wasn’t my mother obviously smart, ambitious,  and successful? It was certainly unfortunate that she’d had to quit her job at an insurance parastatal, the Kenya National Assurance. But even then, knowing that there was little she as an individual could have done in the face of rampant government corruption, it was clear she’d played a winning hand. A stooge of then President Daniel Arap Moi had led what had once been a profitable institution into the ground. As someone who’d worked on the company’s books, mom foresaw it’s imminent demise and jumped ship before the whole fiasco came undone.

To her earlier detractors, she could point out that her two daughters attended a top government school, while her eldest boy, me, was enrolled at a well-performing private school. An ‘Academy’ no less. And now here we were. Taking in that new car smell from this our imported second-hand Japanese automobile. The exterior was sleek metallic silver. Intended for Kenyan roads, it was a right-hand drive with a sliding door on the left. Eventually, once the passenger seats had been installed, it would seat 16 people. Plus a conductor crouching and hanging on from the doorway.

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A Nissan matatu ferrying passengers on the Kericho-Narok route.

For now, however, the van was deliciously empty. The open rear held space not only for cushioned matatu seats that would be bolted to the floor, but also for much more expansive dreams about our bright and rising family prospects. We were, evidently, a family on the up and up. This was the mid-90s, and the combined effects of Bretton Woods’ neo-liberalism, as well as Moi’s cleptocracy were squeezing the country really hard. It was infinitely more difficult for middle class families to make ends meet than it had been just a decade ago. Consequently, it became quite fashionable, indeed inevitable, for professionals to relocate with their families all over the world. The United Kingdom was a major destination for practitioners in the healthcare industry. As Kenyans diversified, or perhaps as the UK got fed up with economic migrants from it former East African colony, Australia, the United States, and South Africa all became new attractions for anyone questing for greener pastures. In this regards, a new PSV Nissan was the equivalent of a Green Card, aka Diversity Lottery visa. Financially, in terms of how much money families spent while applying for, and getting processed through, the resident migrant visa, there couldn’t have been much difference.

A homecoming was in order. And we aimed to do in style. My dad still couldn’t drive. This handicap, however, only served to amplify the suddenness and greatness of his feat. Once the vehicle had cleared customs at the Mombasa port terminal, he’d engaged a driver cum mechanic who lived in our area to help transport the vehicle 450 kilometers back to Nairobi. Buro, as the fellow was called, was actually really good with engines and gear boxes. He had a keen eye for knowing exactly which nut or bolt to tinker with in order to give a second lease of life to a derelict shell of a car about to give up the ghost. For now, however, it wasn’t his Lazarus-like miracle working skills that we needed. All he had to do was calmly steer this ship from our home to Gĩkambura, where my dad’s side of the family lived. It was time to demonstrate just how far we’d come!

It mattered little that we didn’t have an accessible driveway at home, nor that our home had exactly zero secure parking spaces. Minor problems these. After all, was it not precisely for such occasions that African hospitality was designed? Mama Mungai, whose family had an expansive stone bungalow, and a little pick-up truck to boot, offered to let us park in one of her two parking spots. Forward thinking as ever, back in the early 80s when she and her husband had designed and built their family home, it had come complete with a two-car garage. This at a time when each rainy season the main access road transformed into a quagmire of sticky clay and open drains was beyond visionary. It was simply epic. Letting myself get carried along with the self-celebratory mood, I even had the presence of mind to joke about how my dad’s drinking would very soon, surely, render him incapable of driving. As I shared this with my mother, I could already envision myself taking over driving duties anytime the excesses of a family weekend outing knocked my dad out into a drunken paradise. No bitterness was included in this quip; it was a simple acceptance that “dad will be dad,” and as long as he kept the family marching along this trajectory of progress, mom and I would gladly overlook his liquid peccadilloes.

This particular Sunday, we walked to Mama Mungai’s and met Buro outside her gate. The driver, mom and dad sat at the front, while my sisters and I were happily relegated to the back. The seats were still missing, so we sat on cardboard boxes. Buro backed out of the garage and out the main gate. One of the family farm hands shut the big black entrance as Buro shifted into gear two over the unpaved Kangawa Road. It was a slow ride to the tarmack Road. But this was one trip we could enjoy unrushed. Unlike other moments when we had travelled as a family, we didn’t have to wait for any benevolent relative to give us a ride. On at least one occasion, what was supposed to be a lift had descended into an embarrassing moment of watching an uncle nonchalantly zoom past us at the designated waiting spot. This time round, WE were in control. My parents could determine what time we left the house, and what time we’d head back. This experience was more than freedom; it was the culmination of a coming into our own, as a family, that had been repeatedly sabotaged before. The accompanying flexing of dreams had as much to do with the profitability of this embryonic shared taxi business as it did with the belief, amongst ourselves, that the prosperity gospel had finally descended in our midst. We had every reason to trust that this four-wheeled vehicular messiah would deliver us safely across the Red Sea of once-a-week meat menus, frequently tardy payment of school tuition, and troublingly long lines of credit at the shopkeeper’s.

Branching right on to Ngong Road, we drove past Karen shopping center, Dagoretti, and Thogoto, arriving at our grandparent’s house in less than 30 minutes. Not more than an hour may have passed between departure and arrival, but comparing the economic outlook of both spaces, this journey had hurtled us back at least 10 years. The Gĩkambura rural economy fares no better than the heavily potholed main road on which it lies and which we had to navigate on our trip. Many of my cousins and their peers terminated their education with an eighth grade school certificate. Poor preparation from the area’s public schools, lack of role models to inspire and guide them though the travails of Higher Ed, and scarce financial resources meant that perhaps less than 2 in 10 students made it to the end of high school. Moreover, there was an overarching culture that didn’t lend itself to exemplary educational feats.

Gĩkambura is barely 20 miles from Nairobi’s CBD. Hence, there has always been a steady demand for unskilled and low-skilled labor from the metropolis which Gĩkambura’s residents have happily fulfilled. In the 70s through the early 90s, painters, carpenters and other handyman professionals could count on finding a job at many of the Asian-owned hardware and construction companies. The biggest employer in town, however, was the abattoir and meat processing industries at Dagoretti Market. Young men who’d come of age would walk or cycle down to Gĩthĩnjĩrũ six days a week. Each Saturday they’d receive a hefty paycheck, part of which made it home to their mothers, wives, and girlfriends, while the rest was liberally shared with kept women, and drinking buddies on their way home. The slaughterhouses called for all manner of skills to staff the 24/7 meat processing and supply that catered to Nairobi’s insatiable appetite for nyama choma – either goat or beef. A group of men would coral cattle into the abattoir. Dangerous work this: thick batons, plus a lot of tail-twisting, were necessary to convince thickset, long-horned bulls to walk into a structure that reeked of blood and death. The bulls were shot in the forehead by another set of professionals, before beheading, skinning, disemboweling, and getting chopped into a variety of meat qualities. From the moment one cow arrived at Dagoretti, it would have been worked on by almost 15 men, each of whom would draw a weekly salary for their special skillset. Women, on the other hand, were spoilt for choice as traders of all kinds of goods at the retail market that buttressed the Dagoretti economy. Fresh veggies, dry cereals, second hand clothing, and imported Chinese and Indian-made plastic household items were all tradeable products at the open air commerce center.

There must have been a horde of village kids who came to admire the vehicle. I, on the other hand, was too busy being the rich kid from a family that owns a car to notice them. My dad’s name, Uncle Muchiri or Baba Muchiri, depending on whether the kids were related to his sisters or his brothers, would have been said with a certain awe. We were served lunch, after which my sisters and I spent the rest of the afternoon trooping in and out of the many homesteads where we had cousins. Baba Mwathi had a mud-walled 2-roomed cottage. A little dark on the inside, it was tastefully decorated with framed photos, and newsprint wallpaper. This was done by pasting old newspapers to the walls using a gluey, sticky mixture of cold water and wheat flour. Uncle Maina’s bachelor pad, a 3-roomed tin-roofed place was certainly the highlight of the trip. In there, as the most favorite grandkids, obviously, my sisters and I would take our shoes off and    watch endless DVDs with Gikuyu gospel songs. Maina, who’d been working at the Dagoretti abattoir since he dropped out of high school, was clearly doing well for himself, hence the new house, a TV set, a fancy sports bike, and the latest imitation designer ware in his wardrobe.

There’s an established order when we visit my paternal grandparents. We first go straight to my grandpa’s house and sit for the usual greetings, tea, lunch, hospitality combo. About a half hour before we’re ready to leave, we’ll walk downhill to where 2 of my dad’s brothers have built their homes. There would then ensue a mini-version of what we’d done at my grandpa’s: greetings, tea/fruit juice, and politely-worded refusals to their invites for a second lunch.

A little while later, one of my cousins would travel to Mombasa  and join my dad in running the matatu. It was he who would eventually baptize the vehicle ‘Mysterious Cat.’ They’d ply the Likoni Ferry-Lunga Lunga route, serving Mtwapa, Kwale, and the Shimba Hills areas. This road forms the last miles as you approach the Kenya-Tanzania border. Crossing over from Mombasa island on a diesel ferry, you land at Likoni, ejected alongside a great mass of daily commuters. Tourist vans with sun roofs popped to ensure maximum safari-ness go first; then come private and commercial vehicles. All vehicles pay a nominal fee to use the ferry. Pedestrians, however, do not; they also disembark last. A good proportion of them proceed into the Likoni outdoor market. The rest either walk home, or board a shared taxi at the bus terminal for the final leg of their journey.

More than a decade later, when visiting grandpa, he’d tell me about seeing us drive in with the Nissan. By then, the family’s nascent dreams of establishing a business empire centered around transportation had all but vanished. The bitter ash of a once-blazing flame now doomed into dying embers. It hadn’t always been so. Purchasing the vehicle had involved a few financial gymnastics. Essentially, my parents had sold the family home to a relative who’d then mortgaged it to Kenya Commercial Bank, where he was an employee. The cash my dad’s cousin received helped purchase the Nissan, with the expectation that the taxi would do well enough to service the loan. For the first year, the new business did very well. The daily cash flow enabled my father to service the attached debt, keep the vehicle well maintained, and support the family. He’d moved semi-permanently to Likoni. Whenever he visited home, every three or four weeks, large, yellow Mombasa mangoes would be plentiful at home. And these were not the overpriced merchandise found in upcountry markets. His mangoes came complete with a basket made from raffia, and several coconuts thrown in. These parcels held the very essence of exoticness. As the Good Book says, we were of Ngong, yet not of Ngong. This was a major upgrade to our social standing and we reveled in it.

Things began going south in the run-up to the 1997 Kenyan general elections. Likoni police station was torched in an attack that came to represent the acrimony felt by coastal indigenes against watu wa bara, folks who’d moved to Mombasa from upcountry. Questions about belonging, identity, and ultimately land rights came to fore in this political dystopia. Essentially, if non-Mombasa residents didn’t belong, they could neither vote nor own land. Any businesses they owned could also be repossessed and taken over. In some ways, it was a little bit like Idi Amin’s Ugandan fiasco which oversaw the ejection of Indians, foreign-born or otherwise, out of the country and their wealth forcefully confiscated with no compensation. The Likoni incident spooked businesspeople such as my dad and his colleagues. Rather than risk their lives and property, they elected to withdraw from the region entirely, at least until the end of election season. The 1997 presidential race was hotly contested. Incumbent Daniel Arap Moi was feeling the pressure as opposition candidates Raila Odinga, Mwai Kibaki, Kijana Wamalwa, Charity Ngilu, Martin Shikuku and almost nine other aspirants ate away at his previously secure one-party majority. State-sanctioned violence became a key stratagem for either intimidating voters or disrupting free and fair elections. It worked. Aside from Likoni, other areas that were engulfed in conflict included Narok, Nakuru, Molo, and Elburgon. These were all regions with sizeable Gikuyu populations in the midst of Maasai or Kalenjin communities. The political narrative that emerged was that thieving Gikuyus were encroaching into areas where they did not belong, buying land at very low prices and taking over the political destinies of such locations. Gikuyu farmers, traders, or professionals who worked outside Kenya’s Central province were caricatured settlers. In a country which had unyoked itself from British colonialism less than four decades earlier, such a story was quite salient. Like other internally displaced persons, my dad formed part of a matatu convoy that trekked from Mombasa back to Nairobi. News organizations were contacted, but in a country where violence and displacement was now a common phenomenon, their sad fate did not warrant much attention.

Once back in Nairobi, Mysterious Cat was put to work on the Ngong-Nairobi 111 route. This was a whole different ball game. The clientele was more urbane and less accommodating than the polite Swahili speakers who travelled from Likoni to Lunga Lunga. Moreover, there were traffic cops to interact with and, hopefully, evade. These novel dynamics changed the profitability of the business. Unlike in the past, the taxi’s proceeds could barely keep up with routine costs associated with vehicle repair and maintenance. And while the business managed to pay the driver and his one-man conductor crew, it could not provide for our family upkeep. With its prospects dwindling, the Nissan matatu was handed over to my uncle, with the unspoken agreement that he’d take the proceeds and use them to service the original loan. My dad went on to do other things, including running a stone quarry, and teaching for a number of private schools. Although he never shared them out loud, his frustrations from the demise of his transport business would sometimes emerge when he had sufficiently imbibed so that he was slightly more than tipsy. The full financial repercussions of this lost business would not manifest until almost 2 decades later, when the bang of an auctioneer’s gavel threatened to render us homeless.

What Eye Saw – III

The kisses. Many and often. Passionate, in a plastic kind of way. Self-conscious smooches that ride on the back of the Queen’s English to spread a Latter Day Pax Britannica. Frail, in the end; yet effective. These scrounged lips and bared teeth mole their way into teenage minds in Nairobi. They are suave and chic, and in the peri-urban Ngong area, as provincially anxious as we were of our small town roots, we lapped these up. It helped, too, that the token black girl was cute. Long flowing hair, heat treated to decorum. An upper middle-class sheen dominates the arrangement of hair ties and pins. The front bob is uppity personified. We eat it all up.

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Not just the possibility, but the actuality of being anyone, anywhere. On the back of his white, middle class ancestry, he rode on to be a pilot, a surgeon, a fireman, an engineer, a college professor, sometimes even an actor. This genius, was, as I’d later come to appreciate, an apt manifestation of privilege, and the mobility that accompanies it.

Hence, given the politics, this was a vision of life that was wholly seductive. And also adaptive. We marveled, in our school boy yarns, at his use of mobile phones. Plus, at a deeper level, a more guttural, instinctual, eat-meat-raw-and-bloody moment, we understood him as men. His pursuer was a Jezebel –  a wickedly beautiful tormentor none of us could resist, even if we’d tried. And yet he attempted, always no more than a step ahead of her long grasping nails. Barely out of reach. And yet, getting captured by this modern day Delilah, would it really have been such an awful thing? That was how blinding her sex appeal.

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Majestic twin peaks in Arches National Park

I think it was mostly the flowing hair, perfectly fanned and billowed into a cinematographic sculpture. There was, too, the dark green truck. I don’t know why green, when my TV set was black and white. But dark leafy hues best suggest the wild and untamed look he projected, assisted by a faithful companion. These were two men bonded in nature and violence, and not broken by any mountains. The poise between expansive outdoors and close-quarter combat.

Modern day cowboys. American Indians who seemingly preferred to not stay dead. Bobby-Six-Killer never sounded more poetic. A private eye duo that cleansed crime from a land wholly condemned of the original sin. The settlers on the land quipped, ” we shall miscege-Nation our way to Americanness;” successfully burrowing into claims of autochthony that 30, 000 years of settlement decried. But who’s counting?

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It was a millisecond moment that promised a whole life of adventure. Just that exact moment as the soundtrack began, and the TV series title appeared. Before, as it were, the blonde, bronzed limbs of Brooks Shields and her uber-suburban community unfolded. Way in advance of, it turns out, the bedroom misdemeanors that had had the program relegated to 2130 hours: post-national news hour, when adult supervision could be counted on. And if absent, not Kenya Broadcasting Corporation’s care.

The click from the shutter, opening, not closing, uncountable doors in the visual world. I birthed by dreams of dying a photographer midwifed by a Hollywood lens that peddled American sex, drugs, and violence. Could that I had belonged, even as an afterthought, in this pristinely white movie set. Scrubbed entirely of, the Civil War, and the Civil Rights. This was the Nineties, after all, and heaven forbid that the bitter aftertaste of history trouble our determined march towards the future of a new millennium. This is how it was, to be Bold & Beautiful.

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This is the monk who became a daddy. And the son flails in tight upper cuts and round houses, achieving a sense of release unrecoverable since that moment of birth. What weighs this family down, and together, is the impossible search for mother. Mother earth, and Wife earth, absent. This unholy crime-busting trinity is incomplete. The quest is incarnate, as spirit. And so we have before us, ladies and gentlemen, the father, the son, and the searching spirit. There may, too, have been whiffs of whiskey in that deep-pocketed shoulder bag slang on top of a trench coat above the old man’s shoulders. A rebellious spirit this. A spirit of color. A spirit with color.

What Eye Saw – II

Part of my religious education since elementary school has always revolved around Hinduism. Sita and Krishna were not merely names on temple sites in Nairobi, but also deities I read about.   But what really brought this education alive for me was watching the Ramayana epic on TV. Back in the day when Kenya Broadcasting Corporation was the only TV station available, they aired Hindi movies every Sunday afternoon. Most of these were Bollywood hits, complete with subtitles and the musicals. We never watched these films for the acting; it was subpar, and yet there was an allure to viewing a small sliver of a continent we knew little about. Unlike the West, India did not bombard East Africa with enormous amounts of cultural artifacts. Instead, over several centuries, India had shared with us her traders, her laborers, her sailors, her cuisine, her spices, and eventually her rail building expertise.

Ramayana, hence, was both exotic and familiar. Kenyan folk lore was populated with animals who spoke, fought, and interacted with humans. Seeing Hanuman and his monkeys was merely an extension of the hare, leopard, and lion who connived with humans in Gikuyu oral literature.

Sita. Beautiful Sita. 8-armed Elephant God. Multiply armed mihiananu. Idols populate a Hindu mythology book. “That is worship of false gods,” quips my nanny. And yet. And yet, these manifestations of godliness fascinate. Even the winged horse beckons to me, offering insight on the nature of divine power. I know not to how explain these allure, much less to others than to myself. I let go, and dive deep.

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Hindu temple, Mombasa

My canoe. This weekly escapade from an island, waters shimmering silver off the screen. The moon glowing blue as I tune the VHF. I voyage forth into the unknown. My will unfolds ahead of me into adventure. The unknown seduces me into forsaking home. Forsaking chores as I while away in my thoughts; indulging my  whimsy and mind mapping exotic destinations I am yet to call home. Coconuts and palm trees occupy the thin space between dreaming and waking. Sand filters down into my bed sheets, and my piss laps back and forth on the mattress, softly like the sea-green waters. The dimly lit room smells of a beach at dusk, and I peer my eyes into the horizon, confirming that I’ve indeed left all else behind. The firewood kitchen next door wafts into my nose, and I flutter my eyes. At once catching, making, and digging into my piscine meal. I am my own Man Friday.

Because soon, I shall be Home & Away. Not even the thick Aussie accent keeps me at bay. I wander, in and out of these middle-class lives, intent on small town living. The restaurant. The beach. Each spot echoes back to me, frustratingly, mirroring my own inactivity. The girl. There’s always one. This time she has long flowing hair, brunette. And dimples that wink each time she yells at an older, ruder brother. Teenage pregnancy. I plug in and out of the thickening plot. The predictability of the narrative is a large part of its success. This could be me. Could be us. If you ignore the trappings of the first world. Later on, when I finally visit the Opera House, I shall wonder at the writing off of darker hued peoples from this landscape. The result of anxious settlers eager to assuage their own culpability.

What Eye Saw

There’s a way in which films are that much more fun when you share them with a crowd. In my final year of high school, I would walk to Stella’s home for action movie VHS tapes. Never mind that I didn’t have a VHS player, there was a cute, young bird involved and that’s all that mattered. She was older, as they often are. And came with a horde of boys peacocking to win her. I was not deterred. Our connection was intellectual and much deeper–or so I consoled myself. Stella had just sat for Kenya’s final high school exams. Having attended Kenya High, a top school in Nairobi, her smarts were beyond doubt. I envied her air of maturity; that, I-know-more-than-you look. I was eager to drink from her fountain of knowledge: borrowing her notes from French class and relishing the perfume smell that accompanied each page turn.

Steven Seagal’s Under Siege was a great reason to hang around Stella’s house. I borrowed the VHS at least once but never actually watched the movie. That part of my life has many memories of me visiting friends so I could watch films. I remember making numerous trips to my grandpa’s house in Ngong so I could sit and enjoy the God’s Must be Crazy series. My sisters and I would usually pass by their house on Sunday afternoons after church. We’d do lunch, and as we ate one of his kids would play the movie on their VHS deck. The films disturbed me then, and still do even now.  And yet I keep returning to them.

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Left, Kenyan comedian Eric Omondi, in a 2017 rendition of Gods Must Be Crazy. Photo Credit: Instagram @ericomondi @254dave_photography

Ngahu. That’s the name under which the main character in the movie series Gods Must be Crazy is known by audiences in Gĩkambura. Whenever I visit my grandma’s house and we screen these films, as captivating as the action is, I find it much more interesting to watch the spectators.

I’ve come to understand the action in the Gods Must be Crazy narrative from a postcolonial paradigm. I see the antics of the characters as racist projections by a white hegemony that could neither fathom African intellectuality, sophistication, nor culture.

My cousins do not share my interpretations. They are genuinely amused at the childlike amazement that Ngahu displays when he encounters a firearm, an automobile, an airplane, or even a soda bottle for the first time. They laugh at Ngahu, rather than identify with him, as I do, from an expansive pan-African paradigm. To them, Ngahu deserves his ill luck; they view the star actor as a country bumpkin with much to catch up on in terms of urban civilization.

Song & Dance

ndege wathie ũtũme marũa,

wĩre baba ũke naihenya,

unibomu yakwa nĩ  thiru,

ĩthireire haha mũkũnyũ,

kamũcũrũge! Kanyita ngũkũ! gaikia mũkũnyũ! ĩtikaganu!

Gĩkũyũ Children’s Play Song

Thinking back, I ingested a peculiarly diverse range of cultural artifacts during my childhood. The play songs, rhyming teases, songs on radio, TV series, and movies that I consumed as a kid originated from all over the cultural map. There were Gĩkũyũ couplets that are probably older than my grandparents. Childhood jibs in Sheng were more recent, perhaps a few decades old. While the Congolese rhumba that dominated Kenyan airwaves was from the 90s, even more recent were TV series from the UK, the United States, and Australia. Some of the items recycled much older narratives. For instance, the movie series Gods Must be Crazy, filmed in southern Africa, retold prejudice against black peoples instituted during the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. Hanuman, his monkeys, and Sita who showed up on my TV screen on Sunday afternoons were revisions of the ancient Ramayana text.

Gĩkũyũ couplets – from my house to the main road, made of dirt and unpaved, you have two options. One is to weave around quarried lands, up a steep slope of dumped concrete and construction waste, to Barabara ya Najuu: the upper road. The other is to walk downhill, using the now official driveway, previously a stone quarry. Baba Shiro owned the small farm closest to the main road. Between his house and ours, the land had been sold by one of his brothers to a family friend. For almost a decade after we moved from Gĩkambura to Ngong’, this area was uncultivated, and overgrown with bushes. As a result, the half acre plot of land was home to a variety of wild mammals. Squirrels were in the majority, but so too were mongooses. Walking down the path, I’d see a number of bushy tails dash up a tree and then listen in amusement as their owners held a conversation up in the canopies. The mongoose family, however, was not known for speed or beauty. What they lacked in these two criteria they compensated for in cunning and sheer evil. Our mongoose neighbors established their presence by the number of chickens they devoured. Actually, not even devoured, just simply massacred.

Around dusk, or even later in the night, we’d hear our hens complain. Their clacking and crooning would indicate that an intruder had entered their coop. Often, the assailant mongoose would break an egg from one of the hens’ laying nests, and help itself to a meal. The shell and some remnants of the yolk would be visible the next morning. A loud bang on the chicken coop’s tin roofing would send its residents scrambling and the intruder would be forced into a hasty get-away.

More cunningly sometimes, the mongoose would not reveal its presence till the next morning. We’d go into the shed to feed and water the birds only to see a stiff hen on the floor. Closer inspection would reveal that its neck was punctured. This was how the mongoose had attacked it, using an incision wound on its neck to drink up its blood. Much like a vampire. The body would often be cold by the time we discovered it: carrion. At this point there was no choice but to bury the dead hen, or perhaps cut it up and prep it for the family dog. But this was generally discouraged. Feed the pet canine chicken on one too many occasions and the next thing you know, she’ll walk into the coop and grab a meal for herself. After all, why wait until the bloody mongoose had killed it first? Unsurprisingly, the mongoose’s wastefulness – it never feeds on the meat, just the blood – made its way into a children’s rhyme song.

Mr. Airplane please send this letter

Ask my father to return home ASAP

My school uniform is torn

It’s tattered right at the belly button

That mongoose! Stole a chicken! Stuffed it in it’s mouth! How very naughty!

We live on the flight path that commercial planes take on their approach to Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta and Wilson airports. The hum of an airplane engine, fifteen thousand feet above us, would send kids running and shouting. They’d send their voices high up, shouting messages to be communicated to their fathers who were far away, physically or emotionally.

There’s precedence here. A well-known folk tale from Central Kenya narrates the use of a dove to send a message from a wife to her husband. The man, so the story goes, had left behind an expectant wife and travelled far away to practice his trade as a blacksmith. In his absence, an ogre moved in and usurped authority it kept the pregnant woman well-fed so her and her unborn child would grow fat, and make for a sumptuous meal. To avert this disaster, the comely wife befriended a dove and trained it to send a message to her husband. This was a win-win deal. The dove got some of those delicious castor oil seeds; and the wife was saved when her man returned home and slaughtered the cannibal ogre.

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Mr. Airplane, please send this letter.

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Mbili fanana/ moja inanuka/ mavi ya kuku!

Two look-alikes/ one’s smelly-smelly/ chicken shit!

Childhood teasing – we’re 3 siblings in my family. Aside from the other illegitimate children my dad has never disclosed to us. Just kidding! I have two younger sisters, twins. Despite all evidence to the contrary, most people who meet them are convinced the two of them are identical. Actually, they’re just fraternal twins. When they were younger, and my mom invested in the habit of dressing them alike, they DID seem identical. As they’ve grown older however, their personalities have fleshed out in unique ways. They’re two different people.

We’d be walking across the village, the two of them dressed in similar costumes, and out of nowhere you’d hear kids shouting “mbili fanana!” The tune would conclude by suggesting that one of the two look-alikes smells of chicken poop. I never inquired from my sisters what they made of these taunts. In many ways, they weren’t malicious. But in their position, I’d have been horrified of all the additional attention.

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tangu lini doggy kava longi, na under?

When did dogs start wearing trousers and under pants?

Rhumba – sexy, jazzy sounds from the Democratic Republic of Congo, previously Zaire, have received ample play time on Kenyan radio since the late Fifties. Joseph Kabasellah’s “Independence Cha Cha” was as much a hit in Kinshasa as in Nairobi. Stars such as Mbilia Bel, Papa Wemba, Franco, Koffi Olomide, and many others have huge fan clubs across Kenya. In the 1990’s, Congolese “Ndombolo” took over the Kenyan entertainment scene like wild fire. The dance moves were borderline explicit, more often crossing into mature adult content. We loved it! Kanda Bongoman was not just a big time DRC musician with fanatic crowds in Brussels, Nairobi, and Paris, but also the self-given moniker by one of the milk hands in my neighborhood. This guy was as skilled in belting out Bongoman songs as he was in hand milking 7 heads of dairy cattle.

It goes without saying that as kids we did our best to karaoke Ndombolo lyrics. That we could neither speak, nor hear Lingala – the language in which most DRC music is composed – did not stop us. If we couldn’t get the lyrics right, we could at least create a re-mix. We made them up in our own way. The end result may not have stayed faithful to the original meanings, and I’m afraid we may have exercised that whole poetic license just a bit too much. There’s one particular remix that I especially associate with my time at Ngong Hills Academy. The licentious lyrics evoke memories of the terrible latrines we frequented as school boys. Those pits of disease were NEVER kept clean. Part of that certainly had to do with the fact that among a horde of 4 to 14 year olds there will be several who do not aim quite right when making a deposit. They’d then leave a nasty package on the latrine floor. The remnants looked like modern art exhibitions or the final products of a culinary experience involving omelets. Either way, these piles of shit were nothing pleasant to look at. And they stank to high heaven. Such incidents aside, they do not explain why many of the doors were often broken and in unhinged. Privacy was a rare commodity when you had a number 2 in mind. It is from that background that we began questioning fashion choices in dog world: what heralded the trouser-donning canines. Obviously, and memorably, this was done to the tune of the latest Ndonbolo track.

On Reading … (Part III)

Another publication that suffered from serious malnutrition in representing people of  color was the Tintin collection. Instead, the comic series made up for this dearth via numerous stereotypical depictions of Native Americans and Asians. When Tintin finally chose to include Africans, the caricatures were more than offensive. They were over the top; the author dug deep into Europe’s stock of racist African images and paraded these within the covers. Cannibals wielding a humongous pot seeking to make a meal of Tintin and his pet Snowy? Check. A jungle seething with venomous snakes and vicious wildlife? Check. Naked, bone-clad witch doctors? Check. Tintin Au Congo had all these and more. It’s quite wild when you think about it, really The Congo, after bearing the brunt of Belgium and French colonial occupation, was subsequently subjected to cartoonist Georges Remi’s civilizing pen. Remi, more well-known as Herge’, reverts to 18th century iconography in portraying Africans. Herge’s Congolese characters are, much like Joseph Conrad’s, brutes with vaguely human features.

Working with literature in high school was a joy. I had the privilege of learning under teachers who truly enjoyed language and what it could achieve. Kiswahili literature, Fasihi, was taught to us by Misters Ruo and Sarara. Shamba la Wanyama, a Swahili translation of George Orwell’s Animal Farm, was just annoying. The language seemed archaic. There was little about the diction that was creative, flippant, and dynamic, attributes I associated with Kenya’s street and vernacular languages. Rather, Shamba felt heavily weighed down by grammatical structure. The ideas therein made much sense, however. I could wholly identify with the key questions raised about distribution of national resources and the elitism that accompanied political office. Aside from that, the rest was simply too lofty.

Ken Walibora’s Siku Njema was more my thing. The romance novel was, in retrospect, not very politically ambitious. It adopted a neoliberal outlook without much in the way of critical engagement. Characters were poor and impoverished not due to the economic policies instituted at the national level, but because of their own individual circumstances. Nevertheless, the text approached language with a reverence I appreciated. And communities were not merely pawns in an expansive game of chess, but actually individual subjects whose dreams, desires, and fears were worth understanding. The novel might have been utopian, but unlike Orwell’s Shamba La Wanyama, it did not limit human lives to production and labor. Creativity was a vital part of Walibora’s world. The lyricism in his language was refreshing; it paid homage to the great poetic tradition in Kiswahili. More importantly, his word choice enabled him to better tug at our teenage heartstrings. Sometimes the characters underwent extremely sad experiences; for instance, the protagonist was mistreated by his guardian, an aunt who accommodated him after he was orphaned. Other times there was fear, so palpable it vaulted from off the page. Like when the main character runs for his life, pursued by a knife-wielding childhood rival. And, of course, there was love. Lots of love: the innocent kind of love between young friends exploring their new physical awareness; the sellable kind of love that was transacted between characters; and the unrequited love that Walibora’s hero repeatedly got invitations to, each time fleeing in the opposite direction.

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The River & The Source

Leading us in English literary studies was Joshua Musee, a man who has remained my friend to this day.  There was much that we read together, but The Burdens by John Ruganda and Margaret Ogola’s The River and the Source stood out. Musee’s class readings of Ruganda’s play dramatized the work into our classroom space. He basically performed the text with his voice. Ogola’s novel was phenomenal. In the 2 years that I used it for my fourth form national exams, I must have re-read it about 10 times. There were many passages I could recite, especially the refrains that occur in the text and which Ogola composes as a chorus to the larger narrative. Akoko Obanda, the protagonist, came alive to me in the form of my maternal grandmother. Her great granddaughter, Vera, was a role model. I lived, breathed, and identified with these personalities. There was nothing abstract about this fiction. Ogola’s was a true novel. Becky, Vera’s sister, a young woman who vigorously wielded her sexuality, eventually succumbs to AIDS. This hit close to home. My mom’s eldest brother, after whom I’m named, had passed away about 4 years prior, due to complications with HIV/AIDS. These were the early days of the disease, at least in Kenya. A diagnosis, if there ever was one, often came very late, and was publicly understood to be a death sentence. I witnessed family friends, 2 couples in fact, die in the same manner; first the wives, then the husbands. Add to that list one of my dad’s younger sister, Aunty Wanjiku – a really funny, vibrant woman. A literary examination of Ogola’s narrative wasn’t so much a close reading analysis as a reflection on the lives my community and extended family lived.

Ian Serraillier’s The Silver Sword affected me in ways I had not anticipated. On the one hand there was a great sense of adventure, as a group of children travelled across the Bavarian countryside fleeing from Nazi Germany. In this way, The Silver Sword sowed an interest in understanding World War II that has endured since then. And yet, there was horror. Lots of it. Though certainly written as a children’s book, and hence void of the graphic brutality that other WWII narratives such as Saving Private Ryan depict, Serraillier’s work had an underlying sense of fear that was palpable. I understood  the Polish family’s misery as they fought starvation and the elements, all while fleeing the SS and evading capture. There is certainly the sense that this is a group of siblings who have been torn apart; and when healing finally arrives, it will only cover emotional wounds that are too deep to ever forget.

Both the picaresque and the humor of Wind in the Willows made it a truly remarkable text. Toad, the protagonist, sets off on a voyage down the river he has lived beside for many years. Many exploits await (him?) her in the journey ahead. What drew me to this book most, however, was the sense of travel and freedom. The world was truly Toad’s oyster and he went about savoring it. The inquisitiveness and curiosity that are behind Toad’s acquisition of a boat, preparation for the trip, and finally saying goodbye to friends before heading out are the same feelings I experience before each trip, even today. Each day on the road presents itself as a new opportunity to re-invent myself. That’s a rare gift we nomads have; routines have a way of wearing us down to a monotonous set of habits. Thankfully, the open road beckons!

On Reading … (Consuming White Pop Culture)

More than once, all our good intentions to work hard and be responsible were jeopardized by TV. What could our young minds do but bend in awe of television dramas such as The Passions (UK), Home & Away (Australia) and Smurfs (USA)? The latter was especially addictive. It was an animation series, with a blue Smurf family: Papa Smurf, Mama Smurf, and a whole bunch of Smurf kids, aunts and uncles. The villain was a carnivorous cat, and its equally vile owner. Oh, and the show had the catchiest sound track ever. Even though I couldn’t tell why, there was something clearly American about the cartoon. And indeed it was, the original Smurfs (Les Schtroumpfs) aired in Belgium in the late Seventies. It was then imported into the North American market during the Eighties. Although production had stopped by 1989, it was so popular that reruns of the original shows aired well into the 2000s.

There was a lot of American pop culture circulating in my childhood. The two most significant books been the Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys fiction series. Owning one of these books was badass; it gave you major street cred at school – regardless of whether you’d read them or not! Usually, it meant that the owner came from a family wealthy enough to buy imported books, or that they had visited the U.S. and bought the books there. Both possibilities totally tantalized our schoolboy minds. It was not unusual to have to beg and borrow before acquiring the reading rights of a Hardy Boys book. Often, the owner would only let you read the book at school, no way they’d allow you to go home with it. For one, you might choose to conveniently forget the book at your house the next day, or the kid’s parents might ask to see the book that evening. Books were expensive; if they went missing, even for an evening, you could expect a scolding, at best, or maybe even a spanking. But sometimes I’d be lucky enough to take a book home, sometime even for a weekend. Bliss!

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Consuming American Pop Culture

In the current, supposedly, “post-racial” American social scene, it’s quite fascinating thinking back to Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew. These books had NO black characters, not one. Zilch. Sleuthing and clever detective work was a decidedly white, middle-class pursuit that folks of color were simply not privy to. Either black people had no crime in their neighborhoods or they were wholly unable to tackle it. Probably more of the latter. The protagonists in both texts had this aura of leisure. They pursued detective work because they had the time, and the resources for it. They had access to vehicles, computer and telecommunications equipment, cash, contacts, etc. that were clearly part and parcel of their social class. This was a world apart from the one I occupied. Where I lived, white people were rare and far between. And always rich. In the novels, people who looked like me barely showed up. I accepted those two worlds as is.

The British Famous Five series had many of the same features.  4 white kids, and their dog, who went on holidays, visited the circus, sniffed out trouble, and solved it. There was a nomadic air to these kids. I got the sense that they could travel anywhere they wanted. Even their dog seemed to have a better life than I did. I tried to collar on one of the mutts we were always trying to domesticate. My dog couldn’t appreciate that I was beckoning him into a world of mystery and adventure. One where we’d skulk around our neighborhood in the dead of night, skipping in and out of shadows as we cursed the bright moon. Glory and fame awaited our crime-busting duo! After several attempts I gave up on the uncultured canine. I’m certain I saw a flicker of rejoicing on that dog’s face.