On the First Day…

We’d just moved house in June 1990. We were now living about 4km from Ngong town and it was time for me enroll back in school. The 2nd academic term runs from early May through end of July; after catching up, I’d have almost 6 weeks before the end-of-term assessments. That first week, I was accompanied by my mother who helped me figure out the bus route. We boarded a 111 matatu at Bulbul Market on its way from Nairobi. During peak hours, passenger vehicles heading to Nairobi would be crowded with private employees and civil servants on their way to offices in the CBD. Squashed next to each other, passengers suffered the indignity of smelling unwashed armpits, stale breath, and rancid week-old socks. Given than we were heading in the opposite direction, it was easy to get a seat. As soon as we boarded, the van drove downhill past a former meat processing plant. At Vet, a bus stop named after the agricultural and veterinary extension farm that ran beside the road, a few older women got in and sat  in front of us. Given their baskets made of recycled nylon sacks, they were headed to the Ngong Market. Just past the PCEA Enchoro-Muny church, and before the matatu got to its last stop, my mom and I alighted.

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Right to left, Joram N. and I. Circa 2008. This kid was legendary! A goof who was ever willing to explore the lighter side of life.

We’d walk the rest of the way to school; 5 minutes later, she pointed out where one of her uncles lived. With time, this would be my favorite alternative after-school destination. But for now, I focused my energy on getting the hang of this new community: Ngong Hills Academy. A place I’d eventually call home for the next 8 years. Mr. and Mrs. Mureithi, the proprietors of the school, had turned the institution into a brand name associated with academic excellence. The private school education did not come cheap. But both parents and faculty understood that the hefty investment in a child’s future would certainly pay off.

That first day, we walked into the receptionist’s office. Mom and I met Mrs. Mureithi, the headmistress, and I was led to my class by a staff member. I was enrolled in Standard One with Teacher Christine. The thing about Tr. Christine is that she was cute, in that attractive aunty kind of way. She presided over her quota of 6 and 7-year-olds with magnanimity. I was assigned to a large table where I sat on a wooden chair and avoided eye contact with the other 3 kids who, already seated, preferred to stare instead of crayoning within the line. Like mine, their chairs were painted in the primary hues of the color wheel: red, blue, yellow. This vibrant background helped highlight our school uniforms.

Being a proper academy, Mrs. Mureithi’s institution set itself apart in many ways. Not for her pupils the earthy brown, dark green, and slimy pink that public schools in the region mandated as school uniform. Instead, she chose a blue sweater, red and white checked shirt and grey shorts for boys, or red and white plaid dresses for girls. These were crowned using grey socks with blue, white, and yellow stripes at the top. Footwear was standard issue, black or brown. In the right conditions, this combo reeked of middle-class dreams and anxieties about one-upping your neighbors. It was the perfect advertising strategy.

I began my Ngong Hills education with a bang and I blame it all on Wakori. It’s a pretty run-of-the-mill story. Classroom bully always seeking attention. Spies fresh prey on whom to exercise his power games. Pounces. The victim strikes back, viciously. Bully, totally stunned, sees his young life flash before him, and vows to reform his ways. Everyone lives happily ever after. And that’s the way it went down between Wakori and I. Almost. Except for the part about me standing up to my tormentor.

This is how it really went down. It was right after lunch, a bowl of boiled rice and bean stew. As usual, Tr. Christine  prepped her class for the daily arithmetic exercises.  I was nervous, and really wanted my penmanship to be perfect. This was a new school after all, and first impressions count. I pressed the pencil too hard into the square-lined exercise book and it buckled under pressure. A few seconds later, the lead point on my HB no. 2 flew half way across the table. I stood up to bend forward and stretch my short arms towards a pack of freshly sharpened pencils in the middle. Wakori saw this, smiled smugly, and went into action! I sat back down, expecting my chair to be exactly where my bum had left it a few moments before, Instead, I met nothing but a void. As I lost my balance and scrambled on the table’s edge to regain composure, I had that sinking feeling that accompanies public humiliation. A few sniggles later, with more wounded pride than broken bone, I pulled my chair back into place and concentrated on the task at hand. Tr. Christine was aghast. Wakori had been caught picking on the new kid! She not only gave him a good talking to, but may also have spanked him. At least I like to think she did. In my 7-yearr old imagination, Tr. Christine immediately transformed into a saving angel. And did I mention that she was cute, in that attractive-aunty kind of way?

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.

 

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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.

 

 

 

Ode to the Wanderlust (Part II)

Uncle Maina, my dad’s youngest sibling, was always a welcome face at home. Having quit high school after about a year or so, he’d made his way into the Dagoretti Abattoir and began earning a living – like most young men in Gikambura. Githinjiro, as the slaughterhouse is called in Gikuyu, has been a permanent fixture of the area’s economy for decades. At least two generations of my dad’s family have channeled their dreams of upward social mobility via the meat processing industry at Dagoretti.

In the late Nineties, Maina would visit once or twice a month – usually on Sunday afternoons. At least some of the time, he’d be relaying messages between my paternal grandparents and my dad. Often enough, however, he’d come to see us on his own volition. He’d usually arrive around  1pm after a 90 minute bike ride from Gikambura. Either my sisters or I would warm whatever had been left behind from lunch earlier and serve him.

In addition to catching up on news from Ocha, the best part of Maina’s visit was that I could access his bike for a few hours. He’d barely have mouthed 2 or 3 spoonful’s of his lunch before I’d be mounting his Black Mamba bike and riding away.

Like many an aspirational young man, back then and even now, his mode of transportation was a big deal. He expressed his increasing liquidity by graduating from a run-of-the-mill road bike to a more specialized racing machine. To be aerodynamically efficient, these bicycles are designed with a low handlebar that forces the rider to crouch low and bend their back. On the streets, kids call them Komes, short for Komereras, a term coined from the Gikuyu word for crouching. Uncle Maina’s Kome was bright yellow; a lean machine that promised speed and luxury for the cyclist.

I decided to give the bike a road test. My parent’s home sits on a ridge opposite a section of the Ngong Forest. From my house, you go down a valley, cross a seasonal stream that is prone to flash flooding as water from the Ngong Hills rushes past, and ascend towards the forest. In the late Nineties through the early 2000s, a frenzy of mining, plus loose – or nearly non-existent – government oversight combined to create a huge environmental disaster: stone quarrying. The local economy certainly benefited from the influx of capital that accompanied the quarry operations. The local population increased due to significant numbers of migrant laborers, creating business opportunities for food processors, private property developers, transportation companies, among others. The cost of these monetary profits, however, was a sharp decline in the biodiversity of the area. Both the indigenous flora and fauna suffered as quarry blasting, earth moving, and the chemical remnants from the nitrate explosives took their toll on the space. Part of the Ngong Reserve had been previously turned into a man-made eucalyptus forest, the rest was still under natural growth. Some of these trees would have been hundreds of years old, supporting a complex ecosystem that disappeared in the span of ten years. In fact, one of the sections that survived the mining onslaught still supports the International Primate Research Institute, hinting at the wildlife that have always lived here.

Smack in the middle of the Ngong Forest Reserve is a murram road that runs from Em Bul Bul town to Rongai, approximately 25km away. It is on this motorway, hedged in on both sides by natural vegetation, that I embarked on my first long distance bike trek. Large sections of the road benefit from a high canopy that kept me cool on an afternoon that was otherwise hot and dusty. Other road users included a few trucks working overtime to ferry quarry chips or building stones, workers walking to/from their weekend shifts at IPRI, and church-goers on their way back home. Much of the road is flat, however, there were a few sections with gentle slopes, followed by sweat-breaking slopes that added to the cardiovascular benefits of this exercise moment. Overall, the experience was heavenly; I could switch off from the school rhythm and concentrate on the bird calls echoing around me, or even the occasional mammal that darted across the road just a few meters ahead of me.

Gataka is an infamous village along this Em Bul Bul – Rongai route. In the late Eighties, residents had already discovered stone mining and were busy supplying to the rest of the region. My dad and a close friend of his have stories of waiting for Gataka building stones at Em Bul Bul, often while enjoying “a cold one.” Gataka is also famous for its breweries; these produce large quantities of the illicit Chang’aa drink – liquor distilled from a mead, or more often, chemically processed using deadly ingredients. On a Sunday afternoon, both aspects of the town’s traits were clearly visible. A few lorries were testament of the continued trade in construction material, just as the staggering men demonstrated that Gataka’s heydays as a Chang’aa den were far from over – despite repeated invocations to that effect by local government officials. The drunks’ verbal outbursts illustrated the well-oiled bribery machine that endowed Ngong’s law enforcement with a gravy train they protected and benefited from.

By the time I got to Rongai, it was almost 5pm. This was a breakthrough because from here the road back to Em Bul Bul was tarmac, but I was still just over halfway done with my journey. Paved road, however, came with a lot more vehicular traffic. I now had to navigate around matatus and buses, no longer having the whole roadway to myself. From Rongai, I passed through Nkoroi, just a valley away from Laiser Hill Academy where an aunt of mine and her husband stayed. It was always a pleasure getting to visit her family; Uncle John was a vibrant man who visibly enjoyed the teaching profession. Their small home library boasted books such as Facing Mount Kenya, by Jomo Kenyatta – a staple in studies on Kenyan nationalisms. At the time, reading was the farthest thing on my mind. I was now hell-bent on getting home before it was too dark, let alone before Uncle Maina decided it was time for him to head back to Gikambura.

Past Nkoroi you come to Kiserian, a bustling commercial town with a large livestock market, abbatoir, and high volumes of trade in vegetables. The town sits on one of the many ridges that dot the Rongai to Ngong road – also called route 126. around the town are numerous arable valleys that are permanently watered by streams flowing down from the nearby Ngong Hills.  Beyond Kiserian, I came to Matasia, and could now imagine an end to my bike trek.

Rather than proceed on to Ngong, and use the Veterinary Farm road to get home, I branched off the main road at 46, a spot so-named for mysterious reasons. From here I ventured onto rough dry weather roads, frequently evading piles of rocks placed in large potholes. I got home at dusk to find Maina anxiously awaiting my return. The yellow Kome jubilantly went back to its owner, happy to have survived a rough ride all afternoon. Because his Githinjiro job had an early start the next day, Uncle Maina chose to head back home.

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Remnants of my long ride to Rongai have survived to this day. I still enjoy long distance endurance sports. So much so that I have made a birthday tradition to run as many miles as the number of years I’m celebrating. Last December I clocked 32 miles – a long jog that left my body so sore even my teeth hurt. During the last 8 miles, I was so delirious I imagined getting heckled by a squirrel. I’d stopped smiling at random strangers by around mile 20. I figured I’d much rather conserve my energy; I was only willing to engage with someone who could offer me a treat in treat: pay up or move on!

Ode to the Wanderlust (Part I)

I still remember the ride in a dinghy van, dark green in color, if my 6 year old memory serves me right. I can even recall stopping at a police checkpoint by the KBC broadcasting station just past Karen. When we got to Ngong, we turned off the tarmac road and took to the gentle slopes bordering the town.

Saikeri is located on the leeward, much drier, side of the Ngong Hills. It was during the dry season, so the route was dusty as hell. 3 hours later, when we finally got to Aunty Wamaitha’s house, we were all caked in a brown layer of fine dust. We were helping her move. Her husband, her kids, and some of her in laws had joined her in this new venture. They had just recently bought previously unfarmed land in a community that supported Masai ranchers and herders. They planned to settle in “town” for a little bit, before eventually moving to their actual farm a little bit farther on into the hinterland.

Then, as now, classifying the tiny hamlet we had arrived at as a town was a stretch of the imagination. When I recently re-visited the town it had grown to a one-street line of dukas – including at least one or two “watering holes.” One cannot be expected to survive  the bumpy three hour ride over arid scrubland without the redemption of a frothy adult beverage. Equally, partaking of a heavy meal to quite the hunger pangs is essential. When my dad and I accompanied Wamaitha back in 1989, I remember a goat barbecue for our welcome meal. In the evening, the green van took of for its return trip to Gikambura, while we spent the night, planning to head back the next day.

I don’t remember much of our journey back from Saikeri. I would even go as far as saying it was uneventful. My dad, on the other hand, would vehemently disagree! From Saikeri to Gikambura is about 20 miles, in his wisdom, my dad decided that the best idea was for him, and my 6 year old self, to walk back. Needless to say, we cut across open brush, foot paths, and occasionally proper roads – untarred. Perhaps he was hoping to accidentally “lose” me on the way. Then as we got closer to home, and the reality of my mother’s wrath, he changed his mind. Alas, by then it was too late for the trek had began. We had to either walk back to Saikeri and wait for the rickety mini buses which showed up every market day, or keep walking. I, for one, was totally over the whole walking thing. By the time we got to the halfway mark, I was ready to die of thirst and starvation – give up the ghost. Dad had no choice but to place me on his shoulders and keep walking. I still remember that we eventually got back home very late, and even more tired!

 

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Many years after, I came up with the brilliant idea of undertaking a solo trek across the Ngong Hills. Keep the following in mind as you judge my depravity: the range of the Ngong Hills essentially dominates the skyline from my house. From grades 1 through  8, I commuted to Ngong Hills Academy under the shadow of these slopes and valleys. These small mountains practically hovered over me ever since we moved to Ngong in 1990. One semester, my school organized a one day excursion to scale some of the more manageable parts of it. I joined approximately 50 schoolmates plus several teachers, and maybe even 1 or 2 armed administrative police. One girl fainted on our way up; it was then explained to the rest of us that we must ascend more slowly so we don’t suffer the same fate. The cops accompanied us because there had been several muggings of hikers on the hills.

Mentioning crime on Ngong Hills brings up several raw memories. The first dates back to 1978 when J. M. Kariuki, a Kenyan politician, was found murdered and partly devoured by wild animals. He had been an outspoken critic of the Jomo Kenyatta government. The last time he was seen alive, he was in the company of several Criminal Investigation Department officers from Nairobi’s Central Police Station. He went missing until his body was discovered by a Masai herdsman.

More recently, Muindi, a Kenyan cyclist training for an international meet, was killed somewhere in the Ngong Hills. The expensive training bike he’d been riding was never recovered – prompting many to believe this was a daylight robbery gone wrong. Others, however, insinuated that his untimely demise may have been connected to an increasingly competitive Kenyan cycling scene and this unnatural attrition of top athletes was sure to benefit someone. In any case, our school-related expedition benefited from a police escort to ensure no fifth graders went back home missing lunch money, not to mention their precious little limbs.

For that reason, trekking the Ngong Hills alone was somewhat nerve-wracking. I didn’t even bother finding a partner in crime: none of my friends are so whimsical as to embark on such a fool’s errand.