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.

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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.

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.

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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!