A Family on the Up & Up

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.

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A Nissan matatu ferrying passengers on the Kericho-Narok route.

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.