Vertigo & Yellow, Sticky Juice

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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.

Sun & Sand

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We’d packed our bags the night before. After a few last minute instructions to Njoro on what to do while we were away for ten days, we embarked on our journey. Destination: Mombasa!

Leaving home that December morning, we were dressed to kill. My sisters, as usual, were in matching dresses. The yellow and brown flower designs on their dresses multiply disappeared into sharply ironed pleats. The twins’ attire was rounded off tastefully with pale green sweaters, machine-knitted by my mom, and white stockings sheltered in the pair of black shoes they’d each received last Christmas.  I was in what I’d termed my “Bermuda” shorts – fashioned to look like a fabric mosaic that comprised of different shades of brown. I also had on a t-shirt, and a heavy cardigan that was made from metallic green and charcoal black yarn. The rest of our small wardrobes had been packed into school bags. Anything that was too big was placed in a large travel bag that had expandable double bottoms. The purple and light blue suitcase was full, its four roller wheels barely more than a few centimeters off the ground as I half-wheeled half-pushed it through the living room.

Traveling by road from Nairobi to Mombasa is a patriotic duty. This ordeal needs to be at the very top of a 50-things-Kenyans-must-do-before-they-die list. It all starts on River Road, a busy commercial street in Nairobi’s less sophisticated district. You’re free to reserve your seat a day or two in advance, but this in no way guarantees the timely departure of your bus. The coach, often with bold, glittering graffiti on its side, will start the journey when the crew ascertain there are enough passengers on board. Mash Poa, Coast Bus, and Tawafiq are some of the big brand names that ply the Nairobi-Mombasa route. These are 50-seater coaches that have become increasingly fancier over the years. Now, many of the bus lines entice passengers with in-door plumbing, free bottled water and Wi-Fi access. Back when my family and I made the trip, none of those trappings existed.

Departing from the River Road terminal does not necessarily mean starting the journey. We still had to weave through Nairobi’s mid-morning gridlock. You swing by St Peter’s Xavier, heading up Haile Selassie towards Uhuru Highway. A left at the round about takes you through Industrial Area, with the Railway museum to your left, and the Railway Golf Course on your right. Before getting into Inda, as the city’s historic manufacturing district is affectionately known, you’ll see a cemetery commemorating Commonwealth soldiers who died during the first and second world wars. Once you pass Nyayo National Stadium you’re now on Mombasa Road; between you and salty breezes of that Indian Ocean port lay about 500 kilometers of open road. Sit back and enjoy the ride. If you’re lucky, perhaps travelling on a weekend or a public holiday, you should leave bumper-to-bumper traffic behind you even before you get to South B estates. However, if the gods have not decided in your favor, prepare to crawl through Embakasi, all the way past Jomo Kenyatta International Airport. Beyond this point you’re scot free.

Your Somali conductor will visibly relax, probably pull out a bottle of Sprite, pop a hole on the bottle top, and take a swig. All these while expertly stripping the bark off a miraa twig using his front teeth, and instructing the driver not to stop for any of those asshole traffic cops who station themselves somewhere before Kitengela.

When you departed from Nairobi at half past ten, your stomach still contained the remnants of last night’s dinner: ugali and sukuma wiki. On top of that, you’d added a cup of Ketepa and 3 slices of bread  -spread with jam and margarine, of course. All that, plus the adrenaline rush from embarking on a cross-country voyage, was adequate sustenance. But now, 30 kilometers from Nairobi, on the outskirts of Machakos town, hunger pangs have welcomed themselves into your Mombasa experience. The novelty of trees, vehicles, pedestrians, and cattle flashing by on the other side of your window is no longer as exhilarating. The only visions you can presently subscribe to involve all that cake, mandazi, chocolate, and biscuits that you spotted behind display counters at various eateries on Tom Mboya St. The drops of condensation that were forming on the outside of yoghurt packs, the Delamare’s Farm logo brilliantly displayed, have returned to haunt you. Their very absence enables them to claw that much deeper into your imagination. What you wouldn’t give for a cool soda, chased with some fresh, warm doughnuts! Unfortunately, it won’t be until Mtito Andei, a good 200 KMS from Nairobi CBD, that the bus driver will pull over. Often, they’ll stop at a restaurant where they’ve pre-arranged to receive discounts, or even free meals, for every bus load of hungry passengers they deliver at the restaurant’s door.

The hungry horde of Mombasa-bound travelers gets off the bus. Limbs are cramped, and need shaking before they can return to life. Eyes half closed. The sun is blindingly bright, after 3 hours inside the bus. The more adventurous among us, eager to get on with the serious business of  consuming a Mombasa holiday, don sunglasses. Gone are the heavy Nairobi sweaters and jackets, to be replaced by t-shirts and shorts and sandals. Where is the sand? We trudge into the restaurant. Already salivating at the aromas of grilled chicken, lamb biryani, mutton pilau, mandazi, deep-fried Farmers’ Choice Sausage, and greasy chips doused in tomato sauce. You can see eyes darting between the cold drinks in the CoCa-Cola refrigerator and the display counter with steaming food where a server beckons. Decisions, decisions. Lost in choice, passengers don’t even notice time slipping away. In another 5 minutes, the driver will be impatiently honking and revving the engine. He and his crew are pros at this; they can polish off a solid meal in under 15 minutes, and still find time to squeeze in their 1pm ablutions and prayers. The driver’s assistant begins to corral passengers back onto the bus, take-away meals hastily packed, and with several folks foregoing their change. The restaurant, however, ensures no one leaves without clearing their check.

Back on the road again, the bus is now a cornucopia of competing flavors. Every dish smells better than the last. Indigestion. Flatulence. As we approach Voi, our fellow passengers are gliding in and out of an afternoon nap. The view outside the window now is blurry. It’s difficult to distinguish reality from dreamland. Are those Acacia trees by the roadside or just in my mind? And is that one-street-town over-populated on market day, teeming with goats, cattle, and fresh fruit, no more than a figment of my imagination? Maungu. Maji ya Chumvi. Mazeras. We’re finally in Mikindani, passing Chamgamwe and the oil refinery. This is Makupa. An elderly lady with her 4 kids is the first to ditch the couch, eager to get home. Her luggage is deposited beside her on the dusty sidewalk. 3 assorted suitcases, bursting at the seams. The eldest kid is holding onto a red-feathered jogoo, Christmas dinner. The conductor hurtles back into the bus just as the driver swings onto the tarmac, engulfing the family in a cloud of thick smoke and ashy dust.  Finally, the two tusks monument, just as I’ve always seen them on the back of the KSHS 50 note. The bus pulls into a makeshift shed. We’re here: Kongowea. This is the end of the road, and the beginning of my Mombasa adventure. There’s dad and his friend, Shaka, waving at us. Five hundred kilometers later, the family is reunited again.

That first night, we had dinner in town. All of us arranged around a wooden dining table. Made from roughly cut timber, the table slanted to the left. The polyester covering, which had been nailed to the top, barely improved this piece’s overall appeal. Not a big deal. Clientele at the “Mombasa Raha Restaurant” did not walk in for the décor and ambiance. Like many others, we too were after the chapatis rolled around fried eggs, flushed down with mugs of hot spicy chai. The scent of tangawizi blended with conversation as my parents shared news and caught up on what been happening since they last saw each other. These were, after all, the days before mobile telephony and short messages only came via snail mail. The rest of dinner involved grilled chicken, fried rice, and soda. More tea for the adults.

By now it was late in the evening. The land-bound breeze coming in from across the Indian Ocean engulfed us warmly. Our up-country noses wrinkled at the brine in the air. We’d also catch whiffs of fresh fish, coconut-laced cuisine, and raw sewage. In time, once my dad’s employees had shut down their taxi operation for the day, we drove to Bombolulu. We were going to visit one of my mom’s cousin and her two kids for a few days before re-joining dad after Shaka’s family got into town.

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A Deep Quest for the Next Bend on the Road

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.

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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.