Njoki on the Weekends – II

I’m glad I persisted; Njoki and I ended up being pretty close. We had a routine. We’d meet up on Sunday afternoons and take walks, sometimes holding hands, into Oloolua Forest. If we discovered a meadow of some sort, or a spot by the river, we’d seat and chat about anything and everything. We shared an interest in Reggae music, UB40 especially. Even now, I can’t hear “Cheerio, cheerio Baby” without thinking back to those conversations. We knew the same people, so we gossiped about them: who committed what crime; who was dating whom; who died.

If not strolling through Eucalyptus trees, we’d sit at an old bridge long into the night, whispering sweet nothings. Njoki fascinated me. She was more mature, but that never came across as condescension. Our friendship puzzled onlookers. She was also really good with animals. She had a pet dog, Mickey, who followed her everywhere and would have defended her with his life. Mickey eventually accepted me. He’d lie down at the foot of an old culvert, while we sat on a low reinforcement wall. One evening, we’d sat so long it had gotten dark. Several pedestrians walked by; they could tell there were two people on the bridge, but they couldn’t see our faces well enough to recognize us. The spot was renowned for muggings. Women hurrying home from errands looked in the general direction they heard our voices and sped away in fear. Mickey quietly kept watch while Njoki and I continued chatting. A little after, a rowdy drunk passed by. I recognized him from his slurry speech. It was Sancho, a young no-gooder who was involved in several robberies in the neighborhood. To make matters worse, he was known to openly smoke weed. If no one openly challenged him about his behavior, it was only because they feared a violent retaliation.

 

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Mickey quietly kept watch while Njoki and I continued chatting.

Sancho heard us talking, and he took it upon himself to investigate. He ambled towards our general direction, swaying. Mickey’s ears went upright, cocked towards this intruder. Sancho took a few more steps towards us, and Mickey knew it was on; this is exactly what he’d been born to do. He was about to be a star. Sancho approached where we sat; he was no more than a few meters away. Mickey was positioned between us and Sancho; he’d now stood up on all fours. I could hear him growling low in his throat, but Sancho had not yet realized the adversary he was walking into. The moment Sancho made the final step, closing the gap between him and us, Mickey erupted into a frenzy of barking and growling. I’d never seen him on the defense before, so I was shocked at how vicious he’d suddenly become. Sancho was taken unawares; he stumbled back, attempting to flee from what might as well have been a lion now right up in his face. He tried to simultaneously turn around and run; while his mind might have been shocked into soberness, his body was still not fully functional. His escape failed, landing him flat on his face. He groaned loudly, probably having grazed himself on rocks. I couldn’t help but burst out laughing. I couldn’t believe that Sancho’s famous bravado had been reduced to whimpering. Njoki had a hard enough time calling off Mickey who, like myself, seemed to truly enjoy terrorizing Sancho into further hysteria. When Sancho finally got back on his feet, he was terribly disoriented. He veered off in what was certainly the wrong direction. And the loud splash that followed confirmed my observation. Sancho was now fully present, yanked back from whatever substance-induced paradise he’d ben enjoying. He cursed, loud and long, something that included both dogs and mothers. But that only added icing to what had become a veritable comedic cake. Sancho knew as much. He waded out of the murky river, shot one last “fuck you” in our general direction, and hurried away from lion-inspired dogs and dark pools that terminated your buzz. Njoki and I figured we’d had sacrificed enough blood to the resident mosquito population. We hugged goodnight, and went our separate ways.

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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 … (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.

Twin Reincarnations of Ivan the Terrible

I was hanging out at a cemetery close to my apartment the other day. Hold on, keep reading; don’t close the browser window, yet! Forget what you think you know about Kisii, and Nyanza, and most definitely forget what you’ve ever been taught about going-ons at the coast, and the mysteries from places called Tanganyika and Unguja. This is not one of those storos. If it makes you feel better, jungus also hang out here. Well, to be honest, they mostly come to jog, and walk, and walk their dogs, and sometimes even to visit their family’s graves. But more often than not the cemetery functions like a park than a place you plant folks once they’ve moved on to the Great Beyond.

SO, I was hanging out at the cemetery when I met this hulking, very polite, well-mannered dog named Dora. Dora is such a dear. I’ve met her several times now in the evening when her, her dog sibling, and their human (no, he’s not an owner; how crude of you) go for a walk. The first time Dora introduced herself, because that’s exactly how it happened, she just kinda ambled over to where I was sitting. I should have been scared, or at least somewhat worried, but Dora’s excitement, and eager bounds as she raced across the grass to me melted away any misgivings I could have had.

I mentioned Dora’s a polite being. We now have a routine. Once she spots, or smells, me she’ll run over and shake my hand. Basically, she’ll keep going after my arm until I let her slip it into her mouth – makes for a very slimy handshake, but such is Dora’s insistence that I comply each time. Amazingly, as soon as she’s shaken hands, she’s a lot less excitable and quite happy to just sit and chill. She usually plops herself right in front of me and looks around contently. Knowing that Dora won’t be moving any time soon, her human(s) usually have no choice but to come by, introduce themselves and make small talk. It’s through Dora’s greetings that I’ve gotten to know that one of her human’s from Mexico City, and his wife has been to Kenya twice. Admittedly, both times she’s been on safari, and that’s a story for another day.

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Encounters with Dora remind me of past experiences I’ve had with man’s best friend. If you were a big uncircumcised boy like I was a big uncircumcised boy, I’m sure you’ve got your own juicy tales about dogs. First of all there was Captain. Captain was a thoroughbred-mongrel, complete with longish black, brown, and white fur. I loved walking around our compound with him on one of those metal chains Kenyans reserve for their canine friends. It was fun imitating what I saw on TV about dog walking, never mind that Captain could damn well walk himself around the entire village, unmolested. Unfortunately, Captain went mad. A rabid dog bit him, and since he himself was not vaccinated, he got infected. Last we heard of him, he’d followed my mom one morning as she went to work. She shooed him back but he never made it home. Even if he had, Captain was beyond help. RIP.

Now imagine my horror when the next set of dogs I met were twin reincarnations of Ivan the Terrible. It was kinda like Jekyll and Hyde, except there was no Jekyll but all Hyde. Double Hyde. Hyde 1 and Hyde 2 belonged to Mm Mungai; she had a dairy farm and I’d go to collect our daily milk supply from her. One evening, it was raining and getting dark, I’d already picked up the milk and was on my way back home. I was happy to have escaped Hyde & Hyde; turns out I’d counted my chickens too soon. Out of nowhere the Hyde twins – identical in short black and brown fur – appeared. We did the whole stare-down-each-other thing. But these devils were in home territory and they could wait all night. I couldn’t; I decided to make a dash for it. Wrong move! They came bounding after me, and not in the friendly, curious way Dora does. The only thing Hyde 1 and Hyde 2 were curious about was who’d manage to bite a bigger chunk off my well-toned calves. I screamed bloody murder as they cornered me into the hedge. Someone came out from Mm Mungai’s house and restrained the two bullies. I walked home, all pieces intact and my pride beyond repair.

*****

As you can well imagine, I was simply looking for a representative of the canine family on whom I could re-assert my dominance. Enter Miki. That was not her real name, but it’s an appropriate one. Again, I came to meet Miki through my duties as the family’s designated milkman – even though this was years later and I’d already faced the knife (and the music) and become a man. So there I was one evening picking up milk from a neighbor’s house when Miki came after me, all bite and no bark. She was out for blood. While one of her humans helped to restrain her zeal for my tasty behind, I made a mental note to always be well armed when I visit. Now you have to imagine Miki: a bag of skin and bones, ribs out like one of those kids you see on a 3am World Vision TV ad. “For just US 25 cents a day, you can …” Her energy was more diabolical than real. But as I came to understand, it was mostly a show for her humans so she could earn her keep and get fed better. Paradoxically, whenever Miki and I met outside her yard she had no beef with me. She used to give me this “it’s not personal” look. Unfortunately, despite the many dog boyfriends I saw sauntering after her, Miki was perpetually starved: the hungrier she got, the tastier my limbs looked.

Several weeks later, I came by and, as usual, found Miki on the doorstep. I walked the last few steps to the door carefully, re-arranging my body posture to demonstrate that I was here for my milk and nothing more. I was not looking for a brawl, despite the 5 foot walking stick I held firmly in my right hand. Miki would have none of it; she had no desire to sue for peace. After all, she reckoned, I didn’t come armed so her and I could have mugithi night. She jumped up intent on sinking her teeth into any part of me. She never got close. I swung my rungu once and she swerved back out of range. Now it was really on; she was incensed that I’d dared defend myself. “What nerve!” she barked at me. All this while her humans had not shown; they were comfortably sitting indoors or perhaps watching from behind the curtains. In any case, Miki thought to teach me a lesson. But I had not dreamt sweet revenge on the Hyde twins for nothing. When she next made a move towards me, I stepped forward, swung hard, and connected my walking stick with her fore quarters and ribs. It was painful. Miki yelped, repeatedly. Defeated, she ran back, tail tucked, to the back of the house. I was finally ushered in to get the milk, and I walked away confidently. Triumphant.

*****

The Hyde twins were eventually poisoned. And no, it was not by me. Turns out Hyde 1 and Hyde 2 developed a taste for their neighbors’ chicken. Well, someone finally had enough of that rubbish behavior and did them in. Despite the bad blood between us, I was genuinely saddened by their death. They were worthy opponents.