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.

*********

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.

img_7134

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?

*********

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.

*********

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.

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.

juja-010

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!

Of Cash, Women, & Public Spaces

I was sitting at the Green Pastures Hotel, Ngong, the other day. I’d just taken care of some errands at the bank and sent out emails. I spotted the Green Pastures café and noticed that although several tables were occupied by old Masai men, there was still space to sit and enjoy Kenya’s legendary chai. I decided to walk in and have a cup of tea and 2 mandazi. After ordering my snacks at the counter, and grabbing a seat, I became aware of two school girls in uniform eating fries. I  also began following a conversation between a security guard who’d walked in for lunch and the hotel staff. They were making fun of him for eating githeri and reminding him of previous visits to the joint when he’d ordered chapati and beef stew – a much more affluent meal than his current maize and bean stew.  He laughed off their remarks, intent on negotiating some beef gravy onto his plate. I thought about paying for his meal but he seemed a lot more at home in the restaurant than I was. On the other hand, I figured, two high school girls would love a free plate of fries. I decided to pay for their meal.

 

At the end of my meal, when I went to the counter and settled my check, I asked the cashier whether the two students had already cleared their tab. She said no, at which point I expressed my desire to pay on their behalf. Although she seemed a bit hesitant, I went ahead and handed her the KSHS 200. I had not calculated a quid pro quo –  at least in no more than an acknowledging nod of the chin, and a shrug of the shoulders. Essentially, a thank-you-but-it’s-no-big-deal response.  Nothing more. Putting myself in their same position, I reckoned that as a cash-strapped high school kid any benefactors, especially those engaged in public transactions would be quite welcome.  I get a free plate of fries and all I have to do is wave thanks and goodbye? Sign me up!

 

That, it turns out, was the exact moment of my miscalculation. These two young women were not operating under the same assumptions. I hissed at them as I was walking out the door – that “xsxs” sound you make with tongue partly jutting out from lips spread over barely exposed front teeth. They both turned to face me. I then ventured to say, “msilipe, nimelipa.” The reaction was fascinating, actually. One of them interpreted my words as an insult. Pointing her right index finger to just above her ear and behind the temple, she gestured asking, “wewe, uko na hii?” Essentially, my sanity was in question. How dare I openly pay for their meal? Her body language was extremely rude; that she was irked enough by my actions to also perform her displeasure in public is amazing to me and invites so many questions. I don’t doubt that at least one of the young ladies, perhaps both, harassed the cashier for having accepted the money on their behalf. I wonder if both female students understood accepting a free meal to also mean partaking in an exchange – for which their part of the deal was yet to be determined. Being that I’m a man, it’s not entirely inconceivable that I might have done so to elicit sexual favors.

 

***********************************************************************

IMG_2036

During the last couple of days I spent in Accra, I took it upon myself to bar hop extensively, in commemoration of the wonderful six weeks I’d spent in Ghana. East Legon was one of my favorite haunts. Close to the Mensvic Hotel where I was lodged, I could walk back from a restaurant as I surveyed the night scene.

 

I’d just had a lovely time at Jerry’s; this outdoor pub that sprawls from within the halls of a juke-box-furnished hall onto the busy Legon Avenue. Patrons not only sit at the counter, indoors, they also occupy plastic seats on what had historically been a sidewalk. They balance local and foreign brews – Star, Club, Heineken – on plastic tables and nod to the DJ’s efforts. Sometimes the DJ replaces the juke box; often they simply compete for an audience. The party spills over onto the busy two-way street. Young ladies in various stages of undress, saunter up and down the street. They familiarly walk into Jerry’s, order drinks, stand by the kebab/mshikaki grill and light cigarettes, then walk back onto the road waiting for the next client. These young women don’t ask for anyone’s permission to be present. If Jerry’s does not prove up to par, they easily walk across to Phillipo’s – a hip barbecue joint that boasts a long line of customers waiting to pick up their chicken, goat, or sausage meats-on-a-skewer. Dressed in wigs, black evening dresses, short skirts, sling bags, heels, and manicured nails, these young women are comfortably in place.

 

Alongside them, in between Jerry’s and Phillipo’s, a range of foreign vehicles drives up and down sometimes slowing down to let one of them hop in. Occasionally, a driver will simply pull up at Jerry’s and begin a conversation with one of the women. Drinks might even be ordered and consumed as the  couple chats, sometimes sitting inside the car, but more often simply leaning on the hood or the car doors. Understandably, given the large number of ladies present, it often seems like a buyer’s market.  Consequently, several ‘sellers’ chose to detach themselves from the Jerry’s/Phillipo’s crowd and stake out their own spots. About 200 meters in either direction, you’ll find seductively dressed ladies standing alone, as though waiting for a cab, or in twos and threes, sharing a smoke and surviving the night. Walking from Jerry’s to the Mensvic, I was fascinated by how the women chose a particular spot. Did everyone have a favorite spot; would others stay away and respect some kind of ownership? Was it more strategic to stand underneath a tree, next to a restaurant, or behind an electric pole? At what point in the conversation between a sex worker and a client did the issue of monetary compensation arise?

 

If Jerry’s and Phillipo’s are visited by the hoi polloi – folks who don’t mind mingling outdoors, assaulted by hooting taxis, mosquitoes, braving inadequate/non-existent interior décor – the new KFC joint 300m down the road is reserved for the upwardly mobile. Where Jerry’s is loud, chaotic, and characterized by cheap plastic furniture that breaks or bends – suddenly planting its occupier on the dirt floor – KFC is marked by shiny glass walls, polished daily to assist its clientele better reflect on their progress up the social ladder. The wood and metal furniture is largely immovable; the only fluid part of the restaurant is the drive thru section where customers lean out of Range Rovers and latest model Jaguars to order family packs of chicken nuggets and diet cokes.

 

Jennifer and Anita were standing together by the road side. I walked on the pavement behind them headed back to the hotel. Jennifer made first contact; not in any rude or heckling kind of way, but just a polite hello. I stopped and engaged them in conversation. They shared their names, after I’d told them mine. And then I began with the fifth degree. Where are you from? Jennifer said she was Liberian, but Anita was from Togo. I thought it was highly suspicious that none of them identified as Ghanaian. Was this to avoid some kind of stigma? For me, my antenna was doubly raised because I’d had several conversations with Ghanaians where crime and begging on the streets were social ills repeatedly associated with foreigners – not something Ghanaians did. Go figure! I couldn’t tell if Jennifer’s English made her Liberian enough, but I sought to check Anita’s French. I can happily report that even if she’s not Togolese, her French is more fluent than mine!

 

I was interested in finding out how long they’d been pursuing this line of work. And I was especially curious to figure out how, if at all, they read potential clients. I asked questions about how often they reach out to someone who’s walking. Jennifer remarked, “this one has a lot of questions!” In their position, I figured I’d only speak with men who drove, expecting them to have more disposable income. Jennifer and Anita made the argument that sometimes they actually make more from a man who walked to them. Anita was pretty clear that if she had a husband she’d not be on the streets at that time; she’d have someone to take care of her. We parted with me buying drinks for them. It was the least I could do. Having taken up their time with my questions, I could at least buy each of them a beer in return. The cash exchange was surprisingly comfortable for all parties involved.

 

 

 

The Memory of that First Illicit Love (Contd.)

Silverbeck Academy moved around a few times before it found a permanent home. One of its earlier locations was a few blocks from Gikambura’s commercial center next to the proprietor’s house. On my way back from school I’d find a pebble or a tin can and kick it all the way home. Well, as close to home as I dared since that kind of soccer exercise could ruin my school shoes making my parents not too happy. Having worked up enough of a tear in my shoe, usually my right one, I’d be sent off to the cobbler. He had lost one leg just above the knee. I suppose I was never particularly alarmed by his disability because I do not remember asking what happened to his leg. He was a good cobbler; after mending my shoe he’d warn me against kicking stones and tin cans because that ruined my shoes. I don’t think he had any fear of me taking his advice since that would have surely dried up some of his business.

Gikambura, had a main street arranged around a market. Shops surrounded the rectangular retail space, leaving a one-way traffic lane all around. My grandmother once ran a charcoal business here. I’d visit – after school and weekends presumably – and sit with her. The venture didn’t last very long but, my first memory of Congolese music is from that shop. I don’t think she played music there but there must have been other Lingala enthusiasts around her, all willingly and obnoxiously sharing their taste in music. Mbilia Bel’ “Nadina” sank into the depths of my young mind, in much the same way coal dust wafted up my nose making me sneeze.

It was also in one of these back alleys that I first experimented with being a hobo. I’m not quite sure where I was coming from but I do remember I was hungry. As I walked home I turned a corner and oh my! What did I see on the ground other than a couple of pancakes. They were stale and somewhat dry but they looked good enough to me. With some hesitation I picked several up and began chewing. I was so afraid I’d get sick I figured that if I only ate about half of each I would be safe. And that’s what I did; I took several bites from each before tossing it back on the ground. I don’t actually remember getting sick so my plan must have worked!

******

The first home I can actually remember my family living in holds several memories for me. In one, I recall our house help, Wanjiru M. For the most part she was a responsible adult taking care of a toddler; other times not so much. Accurately or not, I have memories of lying on a couch and waiting apprehensively as she went to pick a tree vine to whip my young behind. I have no idea what I had done to elicit the proverbial rod, and if there had been a lesson mingled in that corporal punishment I forget.

Wanjiru also served as mom’s “bird.” Let me explain. Mom would come home from work after spending the day in the city. Then, inexplicably to me, she would ask me about the naughty things I had been up to all day. If I asked how she knew I had been out on the main road, a location I was warnd to avoid due to reckless drivers, she would answer a “bird” told her. Well, it didn’t take me long to figure out the bird was right there with me. Talk about sleeping with the enemy!

******

One day I came home from school to find a brand new chicken coop. It smelled of newly-cut wood and the sawdust placed in it. Wonderful! In minutes I was inside the structure, tall enough for me to stand, and I could look out through the wire mesh. Obviously, I also had to explore the roof and so up I went, and inevitably bent some of the tin roofing. Whatever the case, I suspect I could not have been happier if that hen house had been transported into my bedroom. Can you imagine what a cool bed it would have made! I think my fascination with structures, carpentry, and building began then.

The Memory of that First Illicit Love

I first slipped my hand up Teresa’s dress one Tuesday afternoon. We were five. Like any other three o’clock that hot and dry season, we were stuck in a 20’x10’ classroom. In between coloring a red apple and outlining a brown yacht sailing on dark blue waters, we shared the feel of my finger tips on the soft silk of her inner thighs. As the three or four kids on our table concentrated on their drawings, I ventured underneath the desk for a closer look. We were young, and even worse, we were curious.

*****

The memory of that first illicit love is tinged with rumors of child sacrifices. The road to and from school was bushy. There was talk of young kids losing their tongues, left to bleed out by the roadside. There was just something in the air one could not name, both dangerous and exhilarating. In a few months I had graduated from Pre-Unit—year two of Nursery School—and moved on to Class One. Most afternoons on the way home from Silverbeck Academy I tried to walk with Iva, the headmistress’s daughter. She was gorgeous, the icon of beauty in my six-year old mind. Two years ahead of me, there was no way the boys in her class would let me get close to her. Like vultures, they skulked behind her all the way home, playing catch and daring each other to kiss her. I awaited my turn.

If during school days Iva was off-limits, over the weekends she was all mine. Her backyard had an old car seat turned into a bench. We spent hours there spinning yarns whose beginnings and endings have slipped away with the sands of time. In between, we explored large chunks of motor vehicle scrap. On one particular Sunday, blissfully unaware, I joined Africans across the continent and celebrated the freedom of one Nelson Mandela. My hand draped across Iva’s shoulder, I chanted along with the radio “Release, release, release Mandela! Africa’s No.1!”  Dressed in a bright yellow overcoat that came down to my knees, and affecting a cowboy gait—westerns were projected once a month at a local football field and I could go if I found an adult to bring me back at night—my liberty was right next to me. Freedom never tasted so sweet!

*****

My other favorite game back then was building forts. With two boyfriends, I constructed a snuggy hide-out from branches and twigs. Carefully intertwined at the foot of a tall thick tree, this was a fortress to rival all others. The three of us lay out there, staring up at the sky in the patches that had defied our skills in warping and wefting . I, the youngest, lay in the middle, the elder boy on my right. All was play, and soon our shorts came off. There then ensued a discussion as to how, and where, babies came from. Through inexplicable six-year old boys’ logic, we knew it wasn’t from the back. And yet, those dark and tight asses were not for nothing either, we thought, as we tried to push our feeble penises against each other. No, can’t do! Defeated, and with our curiosity having probably moved on to something else, we emerged from our fortress buttoning up our shorts.