My parents might not have placed any silver spoons in our mouths at birth, but they did try their best to instill high morals. Essentially, even though cash was sometimes hard to come by, the little they had was acquired by honest means. One would expect their son to have inherited the same values. But alas, it was not always so.
Aga Khan Academy had a swimming pool; and in our first year, Mr. Mdogo the Physical Ed teacher, took it upon himself to teach whichever one of us villagers who still couldn’t swim. I’d of course previously done the usual accompany-other-village-boys-to-the-river thing in Kangawa. We’d undress to our undies and jump in. Some of the kiddos actually knew enough to float and kick in the right direction. But it was such a high bravado activity, the boys as intent on getting wet as they were to wow the group of girls watching, that I normally shied away. Not to mention that we often went to Ngai Ndeithia, as the pool was called, on our way home from the forest to gather firewood. I’d already be feeling inadequate that my load was the lightest compared to the other boys, no pun intended. The last thing I wanted was to display one more area where they excelled better than myself. And there was also the potential for trouble. No one quite knew how deep the pool went, or what debris was underneath the water. Hence the aptly chosen Gikuyu moniker, God-Help-Me.
So Mdogo got us into the pool. We were a gang of four: Muthama, Orora, Bajaber, and myself. This was humiliating work. We were out there on the shallow end treading water, holding onto the ropes for dear life while other folks performed fish-like tumble turns. Learning to swim is like being re-born. All of a sudden you’re in a new dimension of the universe where you’re expected to keep your mouth open, breath, and kick ALL at the same time. No wonder newborns look so damn grouchy. And it was probably worse for the other three because they were all very skilled footballers; I wasn’t. I was just as likely to score past my own goalie as not. But I did have a tenacity and stubbornness when it came to “marking my man” that made me a formidable defender – when I put my mind to it. For me, swimming was a new skill; for them, every second spent inside that Chlorine soup was psychological torture designed to keep them away from their first love: the soccer pitch. I also suspect that Mato and Pato couldn’t swim, and never learnt, but they were hardened Don’t-Cares so Mdogo might just have given up! There was also a future Miss Kenya in the group of novices. But for her it made sense; soon to be clad in two-piece bikinis, it would be a good thing that she didn’t drown during a photo shoot.
That was us on the shallow end. On the opposite side, acting like they’d literally been born in water were Hussein and a bunch of form two boys. Man, those guys were good! From the effortless dive into a pool, to the strokes, to the turn around, they all made taking laps look as easy as eating buttered bread. Needless to say, I was envious. And I vowed that even if I couldn’t do a perfect butterfly, I’d at least make sure I learnt enough not to drown. So I practiced during Physical Ed: that one hour break we got once or twice a week in order to exercise our pubescent bodies. And I practiced after school. At 3:30pm, with classes over, one could go jump in the pool, as long as there was a lifeguard present. Sometimes I even practiced during lunchtime. I was slowly making headway. Even though I couldn’t do it for more than five strokes, I at least understood the concept behind bringing my head up to breath, rather than making a complete halt just to fill my lungs with precious oxygen.
I even got mother to buy me a pair of swimming trunks. Nylon biker shorts, really; blue, with some floral patterns in white, they definitely looked somewhat feminine. I didn’t let that stop me. I’d change in the bathrooms located right next to the pool. We all did. Boys had their own changing/shower space where you’d don your swimming costumes, or your soccer kit. There weren’t any lockers so we’d just leave our bags in there. It was then that I started going through people’s school bags, looking for their wallets. I’d identify a rich-looking bag, quickly rifle through the pants and pull out any cash I came across. After returning the clothes same way I found them, I’d walk out trying to act normal. I did this a couple of times without getting caught, and used the stolen money to buy my first film camera.
I’d always been into photography, and was at that time obsessed with Mo’ Amin. Amin was a legendary Kenyan-Asian photojournalist. He’d been to all the hotspots in the region, from Somalia, to Zanzibar during a coup in the early 60s. When he had his arm blown off during an assignment, he recovered, got a prosthetic, and kept on working. His tragic death in a 1996 plane crash was surreal. The Ethiopian Airlines flight he’d boarded to Nairobi was hijacked, only to run out of fuel off the Comoros coast. I would look at Amin’s photobooks and dream of travelling as much as he had. A camera seemed to be the magic wand to make that happen, and I was eager to acquire one. Getting my parents to buy me one was out of the question. I could have saved my lunch money, KSHS 50 daily, and accumulated enough for the camera. But that would have taken several weeks, and, after all, forbidden fruit tastes sweetest. I was experimenting with being a thug, and chose to go all the way in.
My Bombolulu is made of green mangoes – large, juicy fruits sagging branches down to the red earth nourishing the roots. The dark brown stems inhibit my teenage attempts to scale to the ripe prizes beckoning me from up high. I am not to be deterred. I persist, and I’m rewarded with vertigo and yellow sticky juice running off the mango seed and down my elbows. Beneath the overhanging trees, amongst the sparse brush and undergrowth, I step over pungent, fermenting rotting fruit. I’m too ignorant to be scared of snakes. In this warm weather, I should be.
For three days that December, my sisters and I joined a horde of fancy-talking, Swahili-cultured kids. These are the kind of teenagers who’ll insult you in such titillating language that at the end of the verbal harangue you’ll smile back and nod in appreciation of the poetry. The rounded vowels slide out in quick succession, sculpting the jagged consonants into street poetry. We formed a company of troublemakers, the older kids evading the younger ones as we engaged in various escapades. My youngest cousin, Tim, was one of the toddlers we’d leave behind whenever we wanted to head out to the streets. BMX bikes would get pulled out of storage, sandals donned, and parental instructions discarded. Hours later, when we returned home dusty, hungry, and thoroughly grimy, we’d sneak into my aunt’s kitchen for a quick snack before catching a shower. One of my cousin’s friends was a tomboy – a gorgeous bod who could spit, fight, climb trees, and curse with the best of them. Though slightly younger, her maturity led me to worship her and the confidence she exuded.
Eventually, my father picked us up from Bombolulu and we went to live with him in Likoni. Dad arranged for an extra room for us through one of his buddies. The house was rectangular, Swahili architecture, complete with the white-washed limestone exterior walls. There was a hallway running down the middle – splitting the interior into two. The tin roof was nailed onto mangrove poles which extended into eaves where local goats rested in the hot and sticky afternoons. The interior was entirely open. Lacking a ceiling, and because the interior walls did not extend high enough, the rafters enabled the sharing of late night conversations, and daily cuisines. Meat frying in one room would translate into a salivating neighbor in another. A couple’s quarrel would result in knowing glances shot across the courtyard the next morning.
This also is true. That my mom experimented with coconut for cooking. She went native, taking time to grate the inside of 2 brown halves and extract the meaty pulp. She rinsed the grated powder to get rid of excess oil, and left the white powder out on a sieve to dry. I sat outside on the cement verandah, finishing a Barbara Kimenye smugglers’ tale. Using my peripheral vison, I kept an eye on a mother hen with her chicks, ready to jump and shoo them away any time she and her flock veered too close to the coconut. That evening we had rice for dinner. It turned a bit too rich in coconut oil; the equivalent of dressing your meal with coconut hair oil. The thick aroma did not leave your tongue until long after the meal itself was digested. Not to mention the permeating smell in the rest of the house after frying onions, garlic, clover, and coconut gratings together.
But Mombasa is much more than fresh fruit and delicious cuisine. Fort Jesus is a mainstay tourist spot. You haven’t seen Mombasa if you haven’t seen this 16th century Portuguese outpost. Originally a bastion of Lisbon’s territorial ambitions in the Indian Ocean, it sheltered numerous navigators and explorers, including one Vasco da Gama. My family and my dad’s friends, the Shaka’s, visited the museum one slightly windy afternoon. As the 2 families went about the fortress, listening to the guide’s presentation, we gasped on cue at human skeletal remains, and craned our necks into the well where occupants got fresh water during an Arab or British siege. Our parents looked on as the kids scrambled up and down the rusted canons. As usual, there was a local photographer at hand. We were corralled into various smiling permutations: just the kids; then boys only; then girls standing behind the canons; then each family together; and finally, the adults – alternating man and woman. Ever the salesmen, our now resident photographer extended his assignment by suggesting we continue our shoot by the ferry. For envious neighbors back in Nairobi, nothing says Mombasa more than the quintessential family portrait which captures Likoni ferry in the background.
That evening, we capped our day’s adventures by dining out. Coursing with energy than we knew what to do with, we kids cleared our meal in record time. “Mysterious Cat” had been ferrying us around all day. And we rushed headlong into it to practice the upward mobility that had been so well displayed by our parents all day. The boys made for the driver’s set, at which point I invoked my right as the eldest kid to sit on the driver’s seat. Swinging the locked steering wheel, while pressing on the brakes, was never more enjoyable. In control, we gave no thought either to our parents still chilling and drinking inside the restaurant, or to passing motorists who were repeatedly thrown off by the flashing brake lights and the possibility that the vehicle was backing out onto the road.
A few days later, on a Sunday morning, we drove out to the Mwaluganje Elephant Sanctuary. Time for a true safari. We were a 2-van convoy, the kids running amok and excited in Shaka’s Nissan, while the adults rode with my dad and his matatu crew. The area around Mwaluganje sanctuary is known as Shimba Hills, named after the lions that formerly roamed wild. Most of these big cats are gone. They’ve been pushed back as more and more of their habitat has been brought under cultivation by cashew nut and coconut plantations. The elephant population has also dwindled, yet they often make their presence known either through fatal encounters with humans, or by destroying crops and property that now lays across their ancient migratory routes. The drive from Likoni takes about 2 hours. We got to the main gate around midday, paid our entrance fees and began weaving in and out of the dirt paths hoping to spot a ndovu. We didn’t have long to wait. The elephant’s majesty is impressive. Especially when a herd of them flap their ears no more than a 100 meters from the glass and aluminum that ferried you to its habitat. Vehicles never seemed so flimsy as when compared to the trunk legs and wrinkled hides of an elephant bull. On the way back, I have distinct memories of a rowdy conversation in the adults’ van. We’d stopped at a wayside inn for a quick snack before the long ride back to Likoni. Sodas were quickly distributed amongst the kids, while the dads knocked back Tuskers, and the mothers tea. My mom was the main participant. I remember wondering whether she was simply thrilled at the family’s time together, or whether she too, for once, had tasted some of what Bachus offers mortals.
Ng’ang’a. I’m named after my paternal grandfather, Amos Ng’ang’a. I’m also named after my mom’s eldest brother, Peter Ng’ang’a. Both parties are now dead, gone to the great beyond. This form of Gikũyũ indigenous reincarnation is at play any time I visit my aunt. Having been named after her husband, I’m both a living manifestation and invocation of his continued existence. I am my late uncle’s widow’s replacement-husband. One of my chief occupations whenever I’m home is to visit as many relatives as I can squeeze into my schedule. This kind of networking, it turns out, was a forte of my maternal namesake. He too loved people, I am told. Uncle Ng’ang’a was also very much about keeping family close. To an extent.
My grandma complained that he rarely made time to visit her. Once she moved to her small ranch in Juja, I doubt he ever visited more than twice in a period spanning almost 8 years. In comparison, my family visited grandma almost every school holidays, so probably about twice a year. Uncle Ng’ang’a wasn’t terribly lucky in love, either. His first marriage did not work out. And despite how much my grandma defended him, and equally vilified his ex-wife, I suppose that as all relationships go, he too had a hand in what transpired. The beautiful remnant of their marriage was Cousin Shiro, named after his mother, my maternal grandma.
Shiro and I were close. Just as my mother and her dad maintained deep sibling love, we channeled that example in our expressions of toddler emotion. These feelings of mutual admiration are captured in a December 1987 photograph taken as her and I sat on the hood of my Uncle’s red saloon car. Those warm fuzzy feelings, in my adulthood, have transformed into a deep quest for the next bend on the road, the yet unexplored mile on a journey with no eventual destination. The unfailing hope that my upcoming voyage will reconnect me with a cousin I have not seen for almost an entire generation. Who knows what will be triggered in that first moment of recognition.
Very much unlike my usual self, I must have slept most of the way to Nakuru — I only recall the crowded mini-bus that we boarded for Elburgon. Having departed in the late afternoon, it was almost dusk by the time we rolled into town. This was 1995 and my family was road tripping like we were the -ish.
After alighting from the matatu, and shaking our limbs back from numbness, the first order of business was to unpack our luggage. That first night we visit with Mama Shiro. Not Cousin Shiro, the one I haven’t seen since the late 80s, or the other one I tried to make out with; it’s not even Shiro Sheila, the cute teenager I bought fruit from on my way home from high school. At this point Shiro Sheila hadn’t even come into my life yet. There’ll be lots of people named Shiro in this story, so pay attention. That first sleep over was at the Shiro who had a child rhyme that went something like “biki baka manyoya.” It’s a nonsensical phrase, as far as I know, that has an amazing capacity to withstand both the ravages of time and the radioactive half-life of memory.
There house was in Elburgon town, a timber milling center. Situated next to Mau Forest, residents take advantage of the great big trees satiated by the Mau watershed area. These grow into huge wide logs that, properly milled, have satisfied Kenya’s timber demand for more than 50 years. Continued deforestation, however, is catching up. Tree planting efforts have been sporadic at best, and human encroachment has pushed out wildlife while jeopardizing the water catchment area. This is an environmental disaster in the making. Even back then, in town, one came across numerous growling tractors, their exhausts belching thick dark diesel smoke, as they struggled to ferry piles of freshly cut pine and cypress logs hitched to the back.
That night’s meal was a mini get-together. Baba Shiro’s brother, Kabaiko, ran the mini-bus we’d arrived in. He joined us for dinner together with several other guys from his matatu crew. Our fingers danced around the hot mounds of Ugali, its steam mingling with spices from the beef and sukuma wiki stew that we dipped it into before placing it in our mouths. The rental house was not hooked to the power grid, and the kerosene lanterns in the family room barely threw off enough light to chase the shadows our hunched upper bodies made as we ravenously stuffed our faces. Crucial recovery work this. The kids, as often happens, were sitting together, legs dangling from the high sofas covered in hand-crocheted cloth. The room went silent for about 20 minutes and it was not until dirty plates and bowls began to pile up in front of well-satisfied stomachs that the noise level began creeping back up. Pieces of soggy Ugali and run-away beef were hand picked from the sofa we children had been sitting on. The tables were cleared. What’s the best part about travelling? You didn’t have to shower in the evening and could roll onto whatever sleeping spot you’d been allotted as grimy as you’d been since you left home early that morning. Bliss. The crowd said its good night and were off. Mom, as always, insisted on a hot shower before going to bed. I stretched out on the couch-turned-into-bed and walked no more than a few steps into deep slumber and happy dreams.
We only stayed in town till the next afternoon. We had, after all, not quite made it to our final destination: the Kabaiko family home, where Shiro’s extended family network of aunts, uncles, and cousins lived with her paternal grandmother. Distance-wise, this was pretty close. But in the rickety matatu we took to the sleepy, rural, one-street town it felt like time traveling to the past.
There was a ghostly tone to the homestead. The entire place had evidently seen better days, and this was clearly the end of a golden era. In the middle of the yard there was a large rusted hulk of a Massey Ferguson tractor. As boys, we could not have been more pleased than when we were perched on top of it, cranking gears and wrestling with the manual steering. This piece of farm machinery must have been a wreck for at least a decade. The driver’s seat had been reduced to a curved metal sheet, the cushion and spring framework having long disappeared. Although the tires were still on, they had long deflated, subject to the hot and cold temperature fluctuations of two dozen wet and dry seasons. The previously shiny, sturdy vulcanized rubber was now crumbling, completely soft in some spots. The diesel particles that had previously covered the exhausted had mostly washed off in the rain; all the same, you could smell a faint hint of engine oil. Trust a horde of rowdy boys to coax out the last gasp of a ghostly pile of cast iron and stainless steel. We had not been playing on the tractor for more than twenty minutes when the combination of clutch pumping and gear jerking resulted in two seconds of motion. Our parents and guardians, fearful we might succeed in rolling one of those great wheels on a toddler’s limb, or apprehensive that we would inspire the long dead tractor to roll off a gently slope right into the family house directly ahead of it, quickly asked that we leave our various perches on the machine. How disappointing.
The Kabaiko farm was no different. Though evidently quite fertile, perhaps even too fecund, it had terror written all over it. Our visit to the farm was characterized by tall blackjack weeds that generously adorned our clothes with sticky black seeds, hooked onto every surface available: hair, skin, t-shirt, shorts. Micege, as the plant in called in Gikũyũ is a big pain in the neck to extract once it latches on. The overgrown vegetation had formed a bush around two crumbling structures on the land: a well and a grave. The well still had the simple pulley system running across its diameter: a log supported by two Y-shaped posts. The handle was long gone, so too were the rope and bucket that would have been necessary to haul water out. The grave was most sinister. It belonged to the pater familia. He had passed away in the late Seventies and laid to rest in the middle of a maize plantation. His grave was cemented over and rough inscriptions scratched on top to mark his dates of birth and death. The whole scene sent goose bumps up and down my body.
A week later, we were on our way back to Nairobi.
We’d finally done it! With the purchase of a vehicle, we’d vaulted right into the heart of the Kenyan bourgeoisie circle. And it felt great. Never mind that the ‘car’ in question was a Nissan Caravan, primarily intended for use in mass transit services. It still represented the kind of mobility that we as a family felt was our birthright. Did my maternal grandma not travel to Israel in the early 60s and drive a Morris Mini? Wasn’t my mother obviously smart, ambitious, and successful? It was certainly unfortunate that she’d had to quit her job at an insurance parastatal, the Kenya National Assurance. But even then, knowing that there was little she as an individual could have done in the face of rampant government corruption, it was clear she’d played a winning hand. A stooge of then President Daniel Arap Moi had led what had once been a profitable institution into the ground. As someone who’d worked on the company’s books, mom foresaw it’s imminent demise and jumped ship before the whole fiasco came undone.
To her earlier detractors, she could point out that her two daughters attended a top government school, while her eldest boy, me, was enrolled at a well-performing private school. An ‘Academy’ no less. And now here we were. Taking in that new car smell from this our imported second-hand Japanese automobile. The exterior was sleek metallic silver. Intended for Kenyan roads, it was a right-hand drive with a sliding door on the left. Eventually, once the passenger seats had been installed, it would seat 16 people. Plus a conductor crouching and hanging on from the doorway.
For now, however, the van was deliciously empty. The open rear held space not only for cushioned matatu seats that would be bolted to the floor, but also for much more expansive dreams about our bright and rising family prospects. We were, evidently, a family on the up and up. This was the mid-90s, and the combined effects of Bretton Woods’ neo-liberalism, as well as Moi’s cleptocracy were squeezing the country really hard. It was infinitely more difficult for middle class families to make ends meet than it had been just a decade ago. Consequently, it became quite fashionable, indeed inevitable, for professionals to relocate with their families all over the world. The United Kingdom was a major destination for practitioners in the healthcare industry. As Kenyans diversified, or perhaps as the UK got fed up with economic migrants from it former East African colony, Australia, the United States, and South Africa all became new attractions for anyone questing for greener pastures. In this regards, a new PSV Nissan was the equivalent of a Green Card, aka Diversity Lottery visa. Financially, in terms of how much money families spent while applying for, and getting processed through, the resident migrant visa, there couldn’t have been much difference.
A homecoming was in order. And we aimed to do in style. My dad still couldn’t drive. This handicap, however, only served to amplify the suddenness and greatness of his feat. Once the vehicle had cleared customs at the Mombasa port terminal, he’d engaged a driver cum mechanic who lived in our area to help transport the vehicle 450 kilometers back to Nairobi. Buro, as the fellow was called, was actually really good with engines and gear boxes. He had a keen eye for knowing exactly which nut or bolt to tinker with in order to give a second lease of life to a derelict shell of a car about to give up the ghost. For now, however, it wasn’t his Lazarus-like miracle working skills that we needed. All he had to do was calmly steer this ship from our home to Gĩkambura, where my dad’s side of the family lived. It was time to demonstrate just how far we’d come!
It mattered little that we didn’t have an accessible driveway at home, nor that our home had exactly zero secure parking spaces. Minor problems these. After all, was it not precisely for such occasions that African hospitality was designed? Mama Mungai, whose family had an expansive stone bungalow, and a little pick-up truck to boot, offered to let us park in one of her two parking spots. Forward thinking as ever, back in the early 80s when she and her husband had designed and built their family home, it had come complete with a two-car garage. This at a time when each rainy season the main access road transformed into a quagmire of sticky clay and open drains was beyond visionary. It was simply epic. Letting myself get carried along with the self-celebratory mood, I even had the presence of mind to joke about how my dad’s drinking would very soon, surely, render him incapable of driving. As I shared this with my mother, I could already envision myself taking over driving duties anytime the excesses of a family weekend outing knocked my dad out into a drunken paradise. No bitterness was included in this quip; it was a simple acceptance that “dad will be dad,” and as long as he kept the family marching along this trajectory of progress, mom and I would gladly overlook his liquid peccadilloes.
This particular Sunday, we walked to Mama Mungai’s and met Buro outside her gate. The driver, mom and dad sat at the front, while my sisters and I were happily relegated to the back. The seats were still missing, so we sat on cardboard boxes. Buro backed out of the garage and out the main gate. One of the family farm hands shut the big black entrance as Buro shifted into gear two over the unpaved Kangawa Road. It was a slow ride to the tarmack Road. But this was one trip we could enjoy unrushed. Unlike other moments when we had travelled as a family, we didn’t have to wait for any benevolent relative to give us a ride. On at least one occasion, what was supposed to be a lift had descended into an embarrassing moment of watching an uncle nonchalantly zoom past us at the designated waiting spot. This time round, WE were in control. My parents could determine what time we left the house, and what time we’d head back. This experience was more than freedom; it was the culmination of a coming into our own, as a family, that had been repeatedly sabotaged before. The accompanying flexing of dreams had as much to do with the profitability of this embryonic shared taxi business as it did with the belief, amongst ourselves, that the prosperity gospel had finally descended in our midst. We had every reason to trust that this four-wheeled vehicular messiah would deliver us safely across the Red Sea of once-a-week meat menus, frequently tardy payment of school tuition, and troublingly long lines of credit at the shopkeeper’s.
Branching right on to Ngong Road, we drove past Karen shopping center, Dagoretti, and Thogoto, arriving at our grandparent’s house in less than 30 minutes. Not more than an hour may have passed between departure and arrival, but comparing the economic outlook of both spaces, this journey had hurtled us back at least 10 years. The Gĩkambura rural economy fares no better than the heavily potholed main road on which it lies and which we had to navigate on our trip. Many of my cousins and their peers terminated their education with an eighth grade school certificate. Poor preparation from the area’s public schools, lack of role models to inspire and guide them though the travails of Higher Ed, and scarce financial resources meant that perhaps less than 2 in 10 students made it to the end of high school. Moreover, there was an overarching culture that didn’t lend itself to exemplary educational feats.
Gĩkambura is barely 20 miles from Nairobi’s CBD. Hence, there has always been a steady demand for unskilled and low-skilled labor from the metropolis which Gĩkambura’s residents have happily fulfilled. In the 70s through the early 90s, painters, carpenters and other handyman professionals could count on finding a job at many of the Asian-owned hardware and construction companies. The biggest employer in town, however, was the abattoir and meat processing industries at Dagoretti Market. Young men who’d come of age would walk or cycle down to Gĩthĩnjĩrũ six days a week. Each Saturday they’d receive a hefty paycheck, part of which made it home to their mothers, wives, and girlfriends, while the rest was liberally shared with kept women, and drinking buddies on their way home. The slaughterhouses called for all manner of skills to staff the 24/7 meat processing and supply that catered to Nairobi’s insatiable appetite for nyama choma – either goat or beef. A group of men would coral cattle into the abattoir. Dangerous work this: thick batons, plus a lot of tail-twisting, were necessary to convince thickset, long-horned bulls to walk into a structure that reeked of blood and death. The bulls were shot in the forehead by another set of professionals, before beheading, skinning, disemboweling, and getting chopped into a variety of meat qualities. From the moment one cow arrived at Dagoretti, it would have been worked on by almost 15 men, each of whom would draw a weekly salary for their special skillset. Women, on the other hand, were spoilt for choice as traders of all kinds of goods at the retail market that buttressed the Dagoretti economy. Fresh veggies, dry cereals, second hand clothing, and imported Chinese and Indian-made plastic household items were all tradeable products at the open air commerce center.
There must have been a horde of village kids who came to admire the vehicle. I, on the other hand, was too busy being the rich kid from a family that owns a car to notice them. My dad’s name, Uncle Muchiri or Baba Muchiri, depending on whether the kids were related to his sisters or his brothers, would have been said with a certain awe. We were served lunch, after which my sisters and I spent the rest of the afternoon trooping in and out of the many homesteads where we had cousins. Baba Mwathi had a mud-walled 2-roomed cottage. A little dark on the inside, it was tastefully decorated with framed photos, and newsprint wallpaper. This was done by pasting old newspapers to the walls using a gluey, sticky mixture of cold water and wheat flour. Uncle Maina’s bachelor pad, a 3-roomed tin-roofed place was certainly the highlight of the trip. In there, as the most favorite grandkids, obviously, my sisters and I would take our shoes off and watch endless DVDs with Gikuyu gospel songs. Maina, who’d been working at the Dagoretti abattoir since he dropped out of high school, was clearly doing well for himself, hence the new house, a TV set, a fancy sports bike, and the latest imitation designer ware in his wardrobe.
There’s an established order when we visit my paternal grandparents. We first go straight to my grandpa’s house and sit for the usual greetings, tea, lunch, hospitality combo. About a half hour before we’re ready to leave, we’ll walk downhill to where 2 of my dad’s brothers have built their homes. There would then ensue a mini-version of what we’d done at my grandpa’s: greetings, tea/fruit juice, and politely-worded refusals to their invites for a second lunch.
A little while later, one of my cousins would travel to Mombasa and join my dad in running the matatu. It was he who would eventually baptize the vehicle ‘Mysterious Cat.’ They’d ply the Likoni Ferry-Lunga Lunga route, serving Mtwapa, Kwale, and the Shimba Hills areas. This road forms the last miles as you approach the Kenya-Tanzania border. Crossing over from Mombasa island on a diesel ferry, you land at Likoni, ejected alongside a great mass of daily commuters. Tourist vans with sun roofs popped to ensure maximum safari-ness go first; then come private and commercial vehicles. All vehicles pay a nominal fee to use the ferry. Pedestrians, however, do not; they also disembark last. A good proportion of them proceed into the Likoni outdoor market. The rest either walk home, or board a shared taxi at the bus terminal for the final leg of their journey.
More than a decade later, when visiting grandpa, he’d tell me about seeing us drive in with the Nissan. By then, the family’s nascent dreams of establishing a business empire centered around transportation had all but vanished. The bitter ash of a once-blazing flame now doomed into dying embers. It hadn’t always been so. Purchasing the vehicle had involved a few financial gymnastics. Essentially, my parents had sold the family home to a relative who’d then mortgaged it to Kenya Commercial Bank, where he was an employee. The cash my dad’s cousin received helped purchase the Nissan, with the expectation that the taxi would do well enough to service the loan. For the first year, the new business did very well. The daily cash flow enabled my father to service the attached debt, keep the vehicle well maintained, and support the family. He’d moved semi-permanently to Likoni. Whenever he visited home, every three or four weeks, large, yellow Mombasa mangoes would be plentiful at home. And these were not the overpriced merchandise found in upcountry markets. His mangoes came complete with a basket made from raffia, and several coconuts thrown in. These parcels held the very essence of exoticness. As the Good Book says, we were of Ngong, yet not of Ngong. This was a major upgrade to our social standing and we reveled in it.
Things began going south in the run-up to the 1997 Kenyan general elections. Likoni police station was torched in an attack that came to represent the acrimony felt by coastal indigenes against watu wa bara, folks who’d moved to Mombasa from upcountry. Questions about belonging, identity, and ultimately land rights came to fore in this political dystopia. Essentially, if non-Mombasa residents didn’t belong, they could neither vote nor own land. Any businesses they owned could also be repossessed and taken over. In some ways, it was a little bit like Idi Amin’s Ugandan fiasco which oversaw the ejection of Indians, foreign-born or otherwise, out of the country and their wealth forcefully confiscated with no compensation. The Likoni incident spooked businesspeople such as my dad and his colleagues. Rather than risk their lives and property, they elected to withdraw from the region entirely, at least until the end of election season. The 1997 presidential race was hotly contested. Incumbent Daniel Arap Moi was feeling the pressure as opposition candidates Raila Odinga, Mwai Kibaki, Kijana Wamalwa, Charity Ngilu, Martin Shikuku and almost nine other aspirants ate away at his previously secure one-party majority. State-sanctioned violence became a key stratagem for either intimidating voters or disrupting free and fair elections. It worked. Aside from Likoni, other areas that were engulfed in conflict included Narok, Nakuru, Molo, and Elburgon. These were all regions with sizeable Gikuyu populations in the midst of Maasai or Kalenjin communities. The political narrative that emerged was that thieving Gikuyus were encroaching into areas where they did not belong, buying land at very low prices and taking over the political destinies of such locations. Gikuyu farmers, traders, or professionals who worked outside Kenya’s Central province were caricatured settlers. In a country which had unyoked itself from British colonialism less than four decades earlier, such a story was quite salient. Like other internally displaced persons, my dad formed part of a matatu convoy that trekked from Mombasa back to Nairobi. News organizations were contacted, but in a country where violence and displacement was now a common phenomenon, their sad fate did not warrant much attention.
Once back in Nairobi, Mysterious Cat was put to work on the Ngong-Nairobi 111 route. This was a whole different ball game. The clientele was more urbane and less accommodating than the polite Swahili speakers who travelled from Likoni to Lunga Lunga. Moreover, there were traffic cops to interact with and, hopefully, evade. These novel dynamics changed the profitability of the business. Unlike in the past, the taxi’s proceeds could barely keep up with routine costs associated with vehicle repair and maintenance. And while the business managed to pay the driver and his one-man conductor crew, it could not provide for our family upkeep. With its prospects dwindling, the Nissan matatu was handed over to my uncle, with the unspoken agreement that he’d take the proceeds and use them to service the original loan. My dad went on to do other things, including running a stone quarry, and teaching for a number of private schools. Although he never shared them out loud, his frustrations from the demise of his transport business would sometimes emerge when he had sufficiently imbibed so that he was slightly more than tipsy. The full financial repercussions of this lost business would not manifest until almost 2 decades later, when the bang of an auctioneer’s gavel threatened to render us homeless.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!