On Reading …

In primary school, I learnt that Africa’s storytelling tradition produced a variety of genres. The most prominent were myths of origin; “how” stories – e.g. how the tortoise beat the hare; and “why” stories – e.g. why the lion sleeps during the day. As I later came to learn, these texts represented the first wave of African literary production. In the first half of the 20th Century, after several decades under European colonization, Africans turned to cultural production in order to shore up their sense of self, and to prepare for the inevitable battle for political self-determination. If mass protests and employee strikes did not yield immediate success in ousting foreign rule – and how could they, when such actions often incited violent reprisals from colonial administrators – subjects of British, French, Belgium German, and Portuguese imperialism turned to the cultural realm. Licking their wounds after strikes on the Dakar-Niger Railroad, the Ethiopian railway service, and at the port of Mombasa, Africans returned to their treasure trove of oral traditions for guidance. Authors collected anthologies of proverbs, sayings, riddles, songs, and stories.

It was these collections of orature that I would later encounter at Ngong Hills Academy, five decades on. There was a large number of African story books circulating between us kids. Such tales inevitably involved giants and ogres, talking animals, and feuding humans. Our school library supplemented these with boxes of books that were brought to class by our class teacher for distribution during “Reading Hour.” The entire room would go silent, after the usual and attendant chaos that emanates from 10-year olds choosing what to read. East African Why Stories by Pamela Kola, for instance, had tales such as “How the Goat Became Our Friend,” “How the Hawk and the Crow Came to Hate Each Other,” and “How the Beans Came to Have a Black Sport on Them.” I loved these texts. The language was simple and easy to follow – think Old Man & the Sea. There was nothing pretentious about them. As woks of fiction, they had initially been commissioned to demonstrate the colonial fallacy that Africans could not write, read, or produce anything intellectual.


Burning Grass by Cyprian Ekwensi

In Dec 2015, I travelled to Kenya for the Christmas holidays. 7 months earlier, I’d graduated with my PhD in English and had been fortunate to have my mom join me in Miami for the ceremony. As she departed, we’d agreed that my family would hold a bigger get-together later that year to truly celebrate my achievements, with relatives and family friends in attendance.

During those actual festivities, in the midst of all the goat barbecues, plates of pilau rice, and cups of porridge, my mom stood up to address those who’d joined us. She narrated how back when she still had an accounting job in Nairobi, book peddlers would swing by their Kenya National Assurance offices at Bima House and offer books on credit. I’d buy books and pay for them bit by bit before getting enough cash to make a new purchase, she said. Buying books was a luxury, it meant giving up on other wants such as a nice wardrobe, fancy shoes, a car, etc. In the end, however, mom was convinced that her nerdy investments had been worth it. She finished by urging young mothers to provide resources that inspired their children’s reading and that helped them develop curiosity and intellect.

I, too, would agree. Those books were game changers for my sisters and I. They introduced us to an outside world that was beyond anything we knew. Our family library included a 5-volume collection of Bedtime Stories, as well as Christian stories from across the African continent. I’d rush home from school with my play buddies but once in the house I had 3 tasks to accomplish first. The first thing to do was get out of my school uniform and keep it nicely in preparation for school the next day. The next item on the agenda was a quick snack. By which I mean feasting on whatever had been left over from lunch the same day, or from last night’s dinner. Thinking back, it’s amazing how much food I was able to tack into my stomach. I’d have breakfast before heading out the door in the morning. My school prepared lunch for us at around midday – often rice and beans, or Ugali and beans. At 4:30pm, when I walked into the house from school, my first destination was usually the kitchen: in search of food.  And of course, I’d have dinner later in the evening at around 9pm.

I have distinct memories of sitting at our dining table, a plate of Ugali and pumpkin leave stew in front of me. I’d dip into the food with my right hand, as my left hand held down a book of children’s stories from Malawi. I was only barely aware of my mouth accepting food, chewing, and swallowing. Instead, I was engrossed in the suspense surrounding a protagonist who’d ran into a snake. To make matters worse, this happened when she’d gone down to the river with friends, precisely what her mother had asked NOT to do. I could identify. My snack and reading break often had to be abruptly aborted because dusk was creeping in. And with it, my mother. Before she arrived it was imperative that my sisters and I have finished our to-do list. That usually included things like doing dishes, watering the vegetable garden, feeding our pet rabbits,  making dinner for the dog, lighting a fire and boiling water, and taking a shower.

Living Life Between the Tracks: From “Lunatic Express” to the “Standard Gauge Railway”

In the late 1890’s, as British East Africa”s most important colonial venture was underway – the Mombasa to Kampala railway – a young girl from the Kamba community watched, amazed. More than a hundred years later, that young soul is bearing witness to yet another grandiose infrastructural initiative: Kenya’s new Standard Gauge Railway.

It’s hard to believe that Shosho was Nzova is that old. There were no records of native births in the early years of Kenya’s Pax Britannica. Just like pre-segregation United States, there was minimal interest in the lives of colored folks – unless that interest had to do with men’s labor or women’s reproductive capacity. In any case, the reach of Britain’s East African empire was puny back then – usually restricted to the tiny commercial centers that were set up to support rail construction. Indentured laborers from India were often left behind to man this seedlings of European civilization in the midst of a vast savanna. Quite a number of these Gujarat traders learned local languages and integrated into the community. Many, however, had no clue what lay more than 10 miles on either side of the track. “Bush!” they’d say, “mere African bush … full of savages.”

The railway construction Shosho Nzova witnessed was to encounter numerous challenges before completion. Some of these problems had to do with the ecosystem. Like the man-eating lions of Tsavo that dragged numerous African and Indian laborers from their work camps at night. Other forms of crisis emanated from the imperialist nature of the railway project, and the manner in which indigenous communities reacted, and resisted. The Nandi people, for instance, were known to vandalize telegraph wire that ran alongside the rail line. The Nandi would then strip copper from these wires and use it for jewelry.

Shosho Nzova’s life was not smooth either. She bore 8 children, and brought them up on her own as a single mother. We were neighbors for almost 2 decades towards the end of her life. On some evenings, I’d go into her house and help her light a wooden fire. It was during those moments that she’d narrate incidents from her adulthood. She’d moved from her ancestral home to Ngong in the late 1940s or the early 1950s. In any case, she was in place to benefit from the restrictive regime that followed Kenya’s 1952 State of Emergency. Like her neighbors, she too was corralled into a concentration village. I was so poor I wore sisal sacks, she’d tell me. I did this while working for one white man in Karen and he was so moved he got me a new dress. Never one to simply lay down and give up, Shosho got into the brewing industry. She set up her own home beer and liquor production unit and made a living entertaining her fellow villagers. Mark you, selling beer from one’s residence was very illegal and warranted harsh punishments from both the colonial and post-independence governments.

Her parenting skills were remarkable. Despite having minimal education herself, she educated her kids to become professionals. Joakim, one of her boys, went to a teachers’ training college and got a job as a primary school teacher. With his government salary, Joakim pulled together enough savings to buy a plot of land. His property had a weird shape; or so it seemed to my young mind. It was very long, spanning two municipal-designated main roads, but it was extremely narrow. It was almost as though the land itself had once been demarcated as a roadway.

Joakim built a 3-bedroom stone bungalow, and put up a wooden structure for his mother. Much of the land was left to grow grass, and in these spaces he planted fruit trees. As young kids, we’d vandalize his guava orchard – using small gaps in the Kei-Apple hedge to rush in, grab as much fruit as possible before dashing back out. Speed was essential. Mwalimu Nzova, as Joakim was more called, did not mess with his garden and he was known to cane any village miscreants he caught impinging on his land rights. Often, one would have to dive head first into the thorny bush to avoid him spotting you. Getting caught was bad; being spotted and evading capture was not much better. The latter scenario usually ended with him making a report to your parents, in which case you still got punished. His farm was between our house and the Kinyanjui’s, family friends. To get to their house, it was possible to walk down hill and use the main road. But frankly, it was so much more tempting to simply cross Mwalimu Nzova’s shamba – damn the consequences!

Joakim’s reactions to neighborhood kids tramping across his farm was not unusual. Many residents in Kangawa village jealously guard access to their farm. Unless you’re in good terms, it’s highly unlikely they will look favorably at your attempts to trespass. And yet these sentiments are in complete contrast to what has been happening lately, all part of Kenya’s shiny new railway line.


At the moment, if you visit Kangawa, there’s an excitement in the air. The thrill is often punctuated by the words, “Mchina.” Word has it that a Chinese construction company is laying railway track for Kenya’s new Standard Gauge Railroad. There is good cause to believe these rumors. For the past 3 or 4 years, there’s been rail construction from the port of Mombasa. After almost 500KM, the line is outside Nairobi, it’s first major station. Just a few miles south east of Kenya’s capital, at Athi River, workers are putting final touches for overhead rail tracks. Clearly, the rail line is on its way west, towards Kisumu and perhaps even further on to Kampala.

The distance between Mombasa and Nairobi is littered with work sites, but unlike 100 years ago, there aren’t enough lions left in Kenya’s wilderness to ambush workers. However, just like a century ago, rail construction is the biggest economy in the small and dusty villages that the track has passed through. In Kangawa, able-bodied young men have signed up en masse to work under the Chinese company. All skills are in demand: electricians, plumbers, woodworkers, masons, etc. Even those with no handyman skills have been fortunate enough to apprentice in a trade of their choice.

Never mind the language barrier. Work hours are calculated in Chinese script as well as in English. Laborers have become adept at gesturing and non-verbal communication. They have also worked hard to pick up phrases and words from their Chinese bosses. On the other side, Swahili words are slowly making their way into the vocabulary store of those managing railway construction.

Several times a month, 2 or 3 Chinese surveyors are seen mapping out Kangawa. They lay out their theodolites, tape measures, and even 3D scanners on roads, farms, riverbeds, etc. Each of their move is well studied and scrutinized. Villagers are attempting to predict where the line will pass through, who will be relocated, and if/when monetary compensation will take place. I spoke with a former headmaster who jokingly talked about trees being compensated at the rate of $600 each. He suggested that after report he’d happily started counting all the trees in his backyard and saw that it all added up to a tidy sum. Perhaps, he said, I should start planting more seedlings even now so I get more money if my home is moved.

Yet, not everyone is eager for the monetary compensation. Even as folks point out that if a major train station is built close to Kangawa, job opportunities will really increase, others are worried about what will happen to the community and its nascent sense of togetherness. I think we’re going to get separated, and will have to learn how to re-build community wherever we all end up, Mochu said. He acknowledges the need for infrastructural investments, but he pointed out the costs of that in terms of relationships between people.

The rail line has already started off with a bang. There was a demonstration when local youth felt sidelined for employment opportunities at the hands of outsiders. Unsurprisingly, a similar conflict erupted in Narok. Young men who identified as Maasai Moran, violently clashed with Chinese managers as well as with Kenyan security personnel as they were voicing their concerns.  Expertise is highly valued by the construction company. Perhaps in attempts to keep the railway construction on schedule. This means that an electrician who worked with the company in Mombasa will be preferred to an applicant who hails from Kangawa. Consequently, there arises animosity between those who live in the areas where the track passes through, and outsiders who have managed to get construction jobs. To the Chinese, their workers are all Kenyans – in the way that foreigners are never savvy of localized competition and rivalry.

Kangawa is currently the site of an 8km tunnel that has to go through a hillside. This means that for the next couple of years, a lot of work will be happening underground. Ominous. To ward off any lingering malicious spirits, foremen set up an elaborate sacrifice on the first day when tunneling began. The offering, consisting of oranges, a bottle of banana wine, flowers and candles was meant to placate any malevolence. So far it has worked; there have been no work site injuries. More importantly, it won over the spectating group of workers. In the eyes of Kangawa’s youth, their Chinese workmates are more than tech-savvy foreigners, they are also a culturally-grounded people who have not discarded their customs and traditions. This won them major brownie points!