I Eagerly Anticipated this Next Chapter

I’d waited patiently to hear back from the UWC committee on whether I was in or out. The expected deadline came and went, and still nothing. I waited a couple more days before contacting them. I was eager, but I also did not wish to be bugging them and possibly be a nuisance. By end of April I was ready for the waiting to be over. I wanted to learn one way or the other; should I keep holding my breath or should I give up and move on?

I walked from home to Vet in search of a Simu ya Jamii, public phone booth. This was in 2002 and the two main cell phone companies were battling for market share. Safaricom and Kencell had each rolled out 2G infrastructure to encourage customers to join their network. Kencell had neon pink booths strategically placed at busy supermarkets and bus stops. Safaricom had distributed green handsets that resembled older land lines. These were cheaper when charged by the minute, and were often more readily available.

I walked up to a Safaricom phone booth, essentially a tall stool on which had been attached an umbrella to unsuccessfully keep out the equatorial sun. The operator sat in the shadow jingling coins and chewing gum. I handed her the number to Dr. Ondeko’s office. It was a weekday and Rose picked up.

Hello, this is Ng’ang’a Muchiri, and I wanted to check in about my application.

Hi Ng’ang’a, we’ve been waiting to hear from you! Did you not get our response? You were selected as one of this year’s finalists, and offered a scholarship to UWCSEA.

Oh wow! That’s great, and no I never got the message.

We sent it out weeks ago. We almost thought you’d declined it. You should come by the office as soon as possible so we can start processing your documents for departure.

I was super excited about all this, and couldn’t even fathom the adventure awaiting me. But I’m also extremely cautious in nature and did not want to get all excited about something that would only vanish out of grasp. I wanted to be double-triple sure this was no hoax before allowing myself to revel in the joys of it. I walked back home in a bit of a daze. Showered and changed; I’d decided to head over to the UWC office and ascertain exactly what kind of con these folks were running. Either I had a full ride to Singapore or something fishy was up. I gave my family a random excuse as to why I wanted to head to town, saying I wanted to go check the post office mailbox for  mail.

I went straight to Hurlingham and spoke to Rose and Irene. And for the second time that day, I was thrilled beyond words. They shared with me my offer letter, detailing a full tuition ride, travel expenses to Singapore and back, plus pocket money. I was floored by this. Less than six months earlier I’d been begging Dr. Pragnell to let me into the Aga Khan Academy IB program, and here I now was, getting a weekly stipend to do just that – in addition to the wonderful travel opportunities to be had? This was the jackpot!

Now, I couldn’t wait to give the news to my parents. This was real as real can be! Rose had shared with me an offer letter, with the UWCSEA logo in turquoise. There was no going back. I learnt that the next steps involved filing for a passport ASAP, communicating with UWCSEA about which subjects I wanted to pursue in IB, and eventually booking my ticket to Singapore. In many ways, I could not get over the incredible sadness that my maternal grandma had passed on just a year before this good fortune came to be. It would have been such a pleasure to share it with her; she who had traveled to Israel as a trade unionist in the early sixties. I felt a sense of her pioneering spirit.

In the waning days of a Moi kleptocracy, government services were not offered as inalienable rights to all citizens, but rather as favors to oil the wheels of political cronyism. Nowhere was this more applicable than at Nyayo House, where the immigration department was based. Their passport application process was slow and tedious. A travel document was not yours by virtue of being Kenyan, but the regime’s to hand out like candy to the few deemed worthy. Passport applications took months. You only ventured into this labyrinth of low intellect civil service if you knew someone-who-knew-someone. I knew Rigitha. His wife and my mother were avid farmers, and they’d gotten along at agricultural extension training sessions.

I started to collect my documents. I needed my birth certificate, my national identification card, an application form properly filled in, and KSHS 5000. Imagine my dismay when I discovered that I’d lost my ID. I hadn’t had the damn thing for more than six months, and now, when I needed it like yesterday, it was nowhere to be seen! Father came back from Mombasa where he’d been trading in potatoes to help me figure out this mess. He quickly secured a birth certificate from the Kiambu contacts he knew. We then went to Westlands and luckily a new ID was issued within two weeks. I went back to Nyayo House. I filled in my application, duly including a Kenyan of sound mind who could confirm that I was a law abiding citizen who deserved a passport. Mr. Kamau Mungai, my co-signer, had been a classmate of my maternal grandma, way back then. In fact, it turns out Mzee Kamau was the class prefect. My grandmother had some not-so-fond memories of him tattling on his peers for indiscipline. Decades later, our families had become really close. I’d swing by their house every evening to pick up our supply of milk.

Co-signing a passport application was no child’s play. Legally, if the government ever had to spend money on my repatriation back home, they could come after Mzee Kamau to recover their costs. What? Having submitted the forms, the waiting game began. Two weeks went by, then a month. Still nothing. I went back to Nyayo House and asked to see Rigitha. He made some noise about following things up. I agreed to come back. It was now the second week of July, I was meant to flying to Singapore in mid-August. Time was running out. I made another trip to Immigration. Still nothing. At the end of July, with less than two weeks to go, I’d turned desperate. The UWC committee was getting anxious. They worried I wasn’t doing enough to secure my passport, as though I kept government bureaucrats in my pocket. They recommended I get in touch with a Mr. Mumo. He worked at Nyayo House, so had contacts, but more importantly, his own son was heading to UWC in New Mexico, USA. Surely he’d be sympathetic to my plight. Mumo was unavailable the first time I tried to see him. When we did have a face-to-face, he made non-committal noises. This simply won’t do. Nyayo House was way beyond my parents’ experience. They could not help much. I stopped by Aunty Maggie’s Nation Center office one afternoon having walked away from Nyayo House still empty handed. She was irate. She was like, who’s been working on this document for you? She wanted to see this Rigitha fellow, right there and then. We headed back over to Nyayo House, Rigitha availed himself when we showed up at this office. I forget what excuses he offered, but Maggie was pretty clear the damn passport needed to be issued like last year. I think her haranguing worked. A week later Rigitha sent word to my house that I should go to the office the next day and pick up my brand new, five-year, passport. Not a moment too soon. It was now time to celebrate.

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This was an experience on a whole other realm, one I could hardly have dreamed of.

The first party was held at home. My parents pooled together some money for a goat, food, and refreshments – soda, and muratina. Invitations were sent out to my extended family, and the date was set, a Saturday no less, so folks won’t be at work. There’s a history to this. In the 1930s and 1940s, when Kenyan families sent out their young men and women for university studies in Britain, this was often done as a group effort. The entire community would unite and chip in cents and shillings until there was enough cash to cover the student’s airfare, room and board, and a small stipend. But there was also the important psychological preparation that the people endowed onto the students. A sort of blessing that would steel them against homesickness, substance abuse, irresponsible behavior, and failure. The extended family and the neighborhood showed up to send off their daughter or son and to remind them they are not alone. That the child has a people and a home who will always welcome him. And of course, there was always the aunt who’d jokingly be like: and don’t bring back a white spouse. Hahaha, just kidding! No, really! Don’t! And of course the parents would play along and defend their child’s choice in marriage partner, even as they too mulled trepidation at the possibility of an inter-racial marriage.

The goat was done to perfection. My dad, two of his brothers, and several friends took charge of this, as the men in the household often do. There’s that moment when five or six men grab on to a goat as the butcher slits its throat. An open container must be close by to collect the blood. Mutura is a delicious must-have. Can’t barbecue a goat and not prepare blood sausage with stewed, peppered meat and parts of the large intestine. My mother led the women’s effort. Aunty Wanja, my cousin Njeri, and Uncle Maina’s wife variously took charge of making chapati, stew, and mukimo. Had I known, I would have savored the smells much longer. The succulent stews and meats should have been etched in my memory more deeply, given that Kenyan cuisine would be unavailable for most of the next nine months.

Later in the afternoon, once every belly was brimming with good food, someone stood up and asked the gathering to join in prayer. Ours was a Christian home, after all. Baba Seret, a family friend, followed with a short speech about how I’d performed well in school, and that they all expected me to keep up the same level of effort and investment in my studies. My dad’s eldest brother, Baba Amos, spoke on behalf of the extended family. My paternal grandma looked on, approvingly. I had my cheap plastic camera with me, and photographed groups of family members: Uncle Kamau looking suave in athletic wear; Mother, one of my sisters, Aunty Wanja, and a bunch of cousins by the outdoor kitchen – my mother decked out in a colorful dress, meaning the cooking was done; grandma seated on a bench, eating, Macho Nne close by on one of our dining room chairs brought outside to accommodate guests.

The younger crowd hang back. It wasn’t until dusk that they took over: setting up a music system, and passing around cups of muratina. The tipsier they got, the louder the whole gathering became. Adults had moved indoors away from the chill. The men had commandeered a 20 liter demi-john of mead and were imbibing, slowly, so as not to get rowdy and possibly be kicked out of the house. My male cousins were now going all out. Waweru pontificated on how the Karugu clan was soon headed to America, where all dreams of financial independence were to be fulfilled. This trip to Singapore was going to be a big deal for me; to understand how crucial it was for my cousins, too, picture this: at 10pm that evening, a contingent of 10 young braves showed up. They’d walked from Gikambura after work, and since they were all macho, felt the need to take their time on the empty roads. They each came armed with a variety of clubs, stabbing knives, and walking sticks. No surprising this squad! Mother had to corral a few of the younger women to get them dinner, warm up uji, as I saw into any roast meat still left over from lunch. Once their hunger pangs were sated, they whispered around about a jug or two of that sweet smelling honey wine. I’d attended a previous post-circumcision ceremony held in my grandma’s hood in Gikambura; I knew these kids partied hard. But my Kangawa crew was strong. Karis represented; swaying to the blaring music, sipping from a metal cup, he shouted something like “Happy new Year” conflating holidays with out of tune merriment. When a few of us laughed, before hushing him, he proceeded to narrate about his injury months before KCSE. He’d broken a leg playing football, and been sent home to recover. Knowing that last minute revision was crucial for the big Form Four exams, I’d shared some of my resources with him. He expressed his gratitude with a lot of panache.

Those who lived close by meandered home in the dead of night. The folks from Gikambura left the next morning, after brunch. We agreed that I’d see them at least once more before flying out. I’d need to go hola at grandpa who hadn’t joined us. I was happy to say goodbye. There was cleaning up to do, but they’d also left me a couple of thousand shillings richer. The collection basket passed around late the previous evening had produced enough cash for a suitcase, a new pair of shoes, and a jacket. An homage to days gone by, when the community united to smooth a student’s relocation abroad. I knew SEA would provide me with school uniform, but my out-of-school wardrobe needed upgrading.

I’d been emailing with school officials, confirming my arrival date, and registering for classes. The principal of Upper School, which did the IB Diploma, seemed nice enough. I had no idea what to expect of her. In addition to choosing my higher and lower level courses, I decided to test the school’s attire regulations. Would dreadlocks be OK? I asked. Di Smart responded with a non-committal “the school had no hard line hair policy.” That was good enough for me.

Party number two. The UWC Kenya National Committee organizes an annual reunion. Students who are embarking on this adventure for the first time get to meet old hands, new graduates, and students in between IB1 and IB2. As expected, good food is a major part of the mix. My parents both attended. We each had to pay KSHS 300 to cover our buffet lunch. Students and parents started arriving at the venue around 1pm. Like in previous years, the event was hosted behind Dr. Ondeko’s office. A few parents mingle, but most are more shy than their boisterous youngsters, who having previously met each other, or perhaps reuniting after an year or more apart, are hugging and holding hands. I could see parents worry as they slowly noticed the prevalence of piercings on boys and weird hair styles on the girls. In addition to a free education, it must have seemed to them that UWC was also going to transform their children into rebellious aliens – a far cry to their former obedient selves. At Rose’s and Irene’s gentle urging, the gathering formed a queue around the table laden with goodies. Plates piled deep, guests sat and dug in.

Self introductions kicked off the more formal part of the ceremony. The UWC committee stepped forward and explained its mission. The members then invited families to know one another. Each student introduced themselves, and where they were studying, as well as the members of their party. Often it was just the parents, but some contingents included an uncle, cousins, or family friends. The lunch was open invite, as long as everyone made their individual contribution. We went round, listening and clapping as each student talked a bit about themselves. My family caused some laughs, especially after I introduced myself as Ng’ang’a Muchiri, and my dad stated his names as Muchiri Ng’ang’a. Dr. Ondeko concluded the event by inviting monetary donations to cater for students’ airfare, incidentals, etc. She extolled future graduates to also do their bit, given that current volunteers gave freely of their time. There was cake, distributed around the group in slices placed delicately on plastic plates. The parents, having warmed up to each other, chatted more freely now. They had shared interests. Situma’s parents and mine had previously ran into each other at Aga Khan. They chatted to catch up. I met Silvia, who was returning for her 2nd and final IB year at UWCSEA. I introduced her to my parents. And I could see a sigh of relief when they were able to put a face to far away Singapore, a destination which none of us had any immediate experience with. The four of us chatted, with Silvia answering my questions about classes, the school, the city. This was going to be my first time attending boarding school – quite unlike most other Kenyan high school students who are shipped off to distant schools for their KCSE education. Mom immediately warmed up to Silvia, exhorting her to keep an eye out for me. This was the last major event; from here on was a matter of counting down days before my first experience flying. I was now more visibly excited about this new adventure. I’d seen folks who had taken on the challenge, and emerged triumphant. For my parents, listening to Silvia’s dreams about attending college in the U.S., on a full ride, helped them see the opportunities that an I.B. diploma could open up for me.

Those last few weeks flew by. Rose and Irene had already set up with a preferred travel agent to book my flight to Singapore. I was to use Emirates, transiting through Dubai, with a short stop over in Colombo, Sri Lanka. Overnight, place names I’d barely heard of before became part of my vocabulary. My most recent experience with air travel had been at Silverbeck Academy, back in kindergarten. Our school organized a day trip to Wilson airport where domestic flights take off to all corners of the country. I’d been photographed inside one of those 12 seater planes. Now, I was packing to take a one-day international flight. I didn’t even want to think about what it meant to transit through an unknown airport, where Arabic would be the major language. I simply assumed that I’d be able to figure it out. Silvia was attending a youth leadership seminar; that meant she wouldn’t be flying to school till much later. And in any case, new students had to arrive several days earlier for orientation. The bottom line was that I was going to be solo. Sink or swim. I’d barely just started travelling by bus alone to Juja and now here I was, with no companion for a 20 hour flight.

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I trained my photographer’s eye on all the vistas spread out below us.

I flew out on a Sunday. All morning we’d been packing up. Mother prepared lunch; we were expecting a number of guests who were to accompany us to the airport. Shaka, one of my dad’s buddies from his days in Mombasa, came with a few friends. They’d been tasked with providing a van large enough to take everyone to the airport. Baba Seret came too, with Seret – a former Ngong Hills Academy classmate – her sister, and a cousin. We had lunch: chapati with beef stew. The idea was that I should tuck in proper, who knew what ghastly airline food I was to encounter before landing in Singapore. We were done with lunch around 1pm. My flight was departing at 7pm, but we’d allowed ourselves about 2 hours to make it to JKIA. Weekend traffic was usually pretty light in Nairobi, but we preferred to err on the safe side. Plus, we were all just excited. Travelling “abroad for further studies” was a big deal in the 90s. India, South Africa, The United Kingdom, the United States, and Australia had all been pretty popular destinations since the late 80s. No one had any idea which direction Singapore lay, but all that mattered was that you had to fly there.

Shaka had taken the BulBul route to our house, no idea why. That meant they’d had to park about 15 minutes away by foot.  The Vet route would have gotten them right to our driveway. At 2pm we gathered for prayers, Siameto taking charge to beseech God for journey mercies. We locked up the house, and I shouldered my sports jacket and a backpack. We headed out. Mother roped my suitcase and placed it on her back, wedging the rope on her palms so it rested on her shoulders. We took the steep path uphill to Uncle Robert’s. Good thing this was in August, the sludge that usually ran down the slope in rainy months had now turned into a fine dust. At the top of the hill, we stomped our shoes hard and ran them through the grass, trying to shake off the finely ground red powder. Siameto took a photo of Mama Carol saying goodbye to me. She took my right hand in hers and stared back at the camera. Her and her husband had been my godparents at my first confirmation into the Anglican Church of Kenya. They’d not reneged on their duties even after my family moved to the Catholic church. My religious godparents had always wished me well at school, taking time to send me the customary success cards that exam candidates hang on strings across the ceilings: a simple ruse to ward exam jitters. Once we were all loaded into the van, we waved off to the few neighbors who’d walked here with us. Mama Carol’s house was just 200m away, so she could walk there. Kahiri went back down the slope, letting my parents know they’d see him when they got back from the airport. This was truly it for me; I was on the first step of a journey into the unknown.

With no traffic on Ngong Road, this was going to be a quick trip. Karen, Bomas, and the Nairobi Animal Orphanage flew by. We’d gone past Wilson Airport, with its small twin engine planes. I wasn’t even interested. I was here for the real deal! Past Nyayo Stadium we turned right onto Mombasa Road, with luck, Embakasi and Mlolongo would both be pretty free of traffic and we’d be at the JKIA international departures in 20 minutes. Thinking back, I don’t remember unloading from the van, walking into the terminal, and checking in my luggage. My passport and ticket were both in order, so that all went hassle free. Then came that awkward moment when half my entourage wants to head back home, and the other half wanted to enjoy the outing to the max: hang around till they perceived that MY particular flight had taken off. In the midst of indecision, Siameto kept documenting this gathering. I have photos of me and my family, with Mama Mungais grand daughter, Siku, as our adpted sibling. Then there’s me with just the men, Shaka looking out from behind Baba Kareithi. Uncle Maina is standing next to my dad. In a third, I’m with Seret, her sister, her cousin, and my younger sisters. By now, I too was firmly in the leave camp. There was too much chaos swirling around, and within, me; not only was this my first time flying, and travelling abroad – hence super exciting – I was also going to be away from my family for almost nine months. That was a first, and I was battling the emotions that I’d avoided by attending high school as a day scholar instead of boarding. Aunty Maggie had managed to join us, accompanied by a friend. I’m photographed between the two of them. This was, I remember, moments after Maggie had thrust a couple of thousand shilling notes into my hand. Always generous, bless her heart. This cash was going to be a nice addition to my travel incidentals. I’m frowning in that photo. My facial expression fully capturing the swirl of emotions I was miserably trying to ride over.

Eventually, they all had to head back. Last goodbyes, hugs, and waves. I passed through airport security one last time, and headed to my gate. Worrying about my family was a new feeling. Although my dad would spend 2 months at a time at the coast, I’d always been at home. Not this time. Now I had to think about their security. It was barely 4 years since we’d had a burglary attempt at home. On its own the incident was not unusual. Security had gotten really bad in Kangawa; there were homes where thieves broke into monthly. Thugs returned to Kasale’s and Mama Leken’s to pick up whatever new electronics they’d purchased to replace the items stolen last month. It really was a joke as far as public safety, and the robbers had the calm demeanor of professionals. Might they make a return to our house? We’d been able to repel them and raised enough noise that neighbors joined our defense. Mwalimu Nzova rang out his security alarm. Flashlights could be seen up and down the neighborhood. Father banged on a window grill they’d been attempting to cut through with a hoe, farm implement turned into dangerous weapon. Thankfully the men on the outside did not try to breach our kitchen door. They’d concentrated their efforts on a living room window, judging that it was furthest from the bedrooms and so would least likely arouse us. Unluckily for them, Mother is a light sleeper. I dreaded calling home from Singapore only to learn that the next attack had been successful. Thugs could be rabid, and with three women in the house, I shuddered to imagine the havoc such violence could wreck on our home.

I watched my fellow passengers closely. I wanted to pick up on their suave looks as they navigated currency exchange, located their departure gates, sat, and snacked while waiting. I was all jelly, and partly envied these strangers their confidence. It really looked to me like they’d been born doing international air travel. I was anxious that they could see right through my Aga Khan Academy façade to the little boy inside me, who’d often been sent home from school for unpaid tuition. We finally got our call to board. I remembered not to forget my backpack, and entered the belly of the plane. As apprehensive as I was, I also couldn’t help smiling. This was an experience on a whole other realm, one I could hardly have dreamed of. Locating my window seat with the help of a flight attendant, I still felt a bit of an impostor. This was an event I’d have expected for my much wealthier cousins, not for me. Settling into my seat, I’d truly been charmed to get the choice of window or aisle seat when checking in – not wanting to miss a single second of this voyage – it truly sunk in just how lucky I’d been. For the next decade, I’d always fly on the window seat, craning my neck every which way to catch sight of the clouds, the cities below, or perhaps a mountain or river. I trained my photographer’s eye on all the vistas spread out below us. Take off was sensational. Soon, as we soared into the air above JKIA, I was now the one off to send a letter; the one to go off and inform my father about the tattered state of my school uniform. I smiled, reflecting on this childhood play song. Certainly, worry was one of the emotions I felt, but largely I eagerly anticipated this next chapter. Now that I’d just tasted the pleasures of foreign travel, I had no intention to stop until I’d gotten to know the whole wide world, as well as I knew the footpaths of Kangawa.

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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.