Njoki on the Weekends – I

If I failed horribly at sweet talking Sheila during the week, I more than compensated over the weekends. Sunday afternoons were spent with Njoki, another star in the constellation of village girls that I dreamt about dating. Sheila was definitely the  morning star, brightest of the bunch, and wholly out of my league. I consoled myself with the fact that Sheila never went to high school – I was too good for her, I concluded. Then there was Shiku, her neighbor. Shiku did go to high school. In fact, her and I attended sister institutions; I was at the Aga Khan Academy, she was at the Aga Khan High School. In the ‘academy’ lies all the difference. Her school was clearly a charity case, mine was the real deal – never mind that I was no more than a scholarship student. Shiku had that advantage over Sheila, but she was also way too wild for me. I’d see her hanging out with the boys I knew better than to associate with. These kids were partying, drinking and smoking, way before I even knew to worry about whether I was still too old to be a virgin. This was the crowd your parents went to church for, hoping and praying that you do not fall in with . These fellows skirted at the edges of the Anglican Church of Embulbul Youth Group; but it was quite obvious their suave moves were not confined to merely accompanying good, pious, Christian girls down the aisle. They had designs that were way more sinister, and the wickedness to target impressionable girls in the congregation. Someone shout “Safe sex!”

I convinced myself that Shiku didn’t really mean to be with this kiddos. I simultaneously dreaded and craved for a chance meeting on our dusty village footpaths. But such luck only opened further conundrums: whom should I look at when we passed each other. Should I stare at her face and ignore the guys jockeying around her like young lions? Would that not be interpreted as competition, and possibly get me an ass whooping? Sure, I wanted the girl, but not if I had to fight a pack of village thugs. In any case, the boys were their own downfall; they were too successful with the ladies. And so, inevitably, they’d get bored with Shiku and move on to the next conquest.

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These fellows skirted at the edges of the Anglican Church of Embulbul Youth Group; but it was quite obvious their suave moves were not confined to merely accompanying good, pious, Christian girls down the aisle.

In Sheila’s social circle, there was also Sara and Emily. They were sisters; separated by an almost 10 year age gap. For some reason, Sara, the younger one, shared a Christian name with their mother. The older Sarah had a mental illness, and thanks to village prejudice, she was more commonly known as Mad Sarah. Mental illness ran in the family. At least two of the girls’ uncles were eccentric to the extreme. One of them, Wachira, was actually under medication; he would often disappear for a week or two. Upon his return we’d learn he’d been admitted at Mathare Hospital, Nairobi’s main mental health institution. Mwangi, the other uncle, was not under any treatment. He’d drink and turn into an entirely different person, physically violent. I watched Sara and Emily closely. I was fascinated by the lives of their extended family. How does one navigate such outrageous characters in the home, I wondered?

Mental illness was rather familiar, but not in any personal way. Walking to Ngong Hills Academy, I’d often run into Brownie and Njeri, our resident mad man and woman. Njeri was old, probably in her late 40s or early 50s by the time I started noticing her. You could go for months without sighting either of them, and then she’d be seated by the road, with a sack of her belongings. She was homeless, as far as I could tell, with minimal opportunities to shower and change her clothes. She held continuous conversations, either with herself, or with invisible companions. Njeri would gesture and her face would contort assent or dissent, as the dialogue progressed. Her right arm, missing a sweater sleeve, would point sideways, and then she’d burst out laughing, only to stop just as abruptly. Dressed haphazardly – a sweater missing buttons, tucked on top of a zipless coat, and underneath which you could see a floral dress – she was more to be pitied than to be feared. Brownie was known for walking. You could never see him seating. He was ever on the move. One day you’d see him at Ngong market, nonchalantly walking past the stalls filled with fruit and veggies. None bothered him. The next weekend you’d be driving past Karen, three kilometers away, and there would be Brownie, still on his walkabout.

The girls, Sara and Emily, were gorgeous. They set many hearts on fire. Mine included. Unfortunately, Sara was in class eight at Embul bul primary. I may have been a randy young he-goat, but even I knew that a high schooler such as myself could not be seen dating someone that much younger. Instead, I set my sights on her sister. Emily was older than me, more worldly. Her and Sheila frequented The Nest Pub & Restaurant when this joint first opened. The Nest was a spot filled with fast money. Matatu crews and young professionals, both just coming of age, would congregate here on weekends. Nest was THE place to see and to be seen. Shiku and her crowd of male peacocks were frequent customers. This was a lifestyle of partying that I could neither afford, nor explain to my parents. I was still in high school after all. And although I had undergone the customary rite of circumcision, I knew not to push my new found independence too far. If I couldn’t party with Emily, I appealed to her romantic side. Running into her one Sunday afternoon by the bridge that straddles a seasonal Kangawa river, I said “Sasa.” She paused mid step, and replied, “Poa, niaje!” We were walking in opposite directions, so we stood facing each other. She just stared back at me, letting me stew under the gaze her elongated eyelashes. I squirmed, willing my brain to not fail me at such crucial a moment. And, before my courage zapped out, I quickly blurted out my proposal “would you be my girl friend?” Although our greetings had been in Sheng, my appeal was delivered in English, of course. The Queen’s language was the surest way to a girl’s heart, so I’d learnt. She smiled, I think, then proceeded to reject my interest in her. She was too hot for me; in many ways I could have predicted her response. In any case, I may have been down, but I was not out, yet. There was still Njoki, Emily’s aunt, for me to proposition. I was hell bent on having a girl friend; I felt the deep urge to catch up with my compatriots. Having survived one let down, I was not too frightened by the prospect of another.

 

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What Eye Saw – III

The kisses. Many and often. Passionate, in a plastic kind of way. Self-conscious smooches that ride on the back of the Queen’s English to spread a Latter Day Pax Britannica. Frail, in the end; yet effective. These scrounged lips and bared teeth mole their way into teenage minds in Nairobi. They are suave and chic, and in the peri-urban Ngong area, as provincially anxious as we were of our small town roots, we lapped these up. It helped, too, that the token black girl was cute. Long flowing hair, heat treated to decorum. An upper middle-class sheen dominates the arrangement of hair ties and pins. The front bob is uppity personified. We eat it all up.

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Not just the possibility, but the actuality of being anyone, anywhere. On the back of his white, middle class ancestry, he rode on to be a pilot, a surgeon, a fireman, an engineer, a college professor, sometimes even an actor. This genius, was, as I’d later come to appreciate, an apt manifestation of privilege, and the mobility that accompanies it.

Hence, given the politics, this was a vision of life that was wholly seductive. And also adaptive. We marveled, in our school boy yarns, at his use of mobile phones. Plus, at a deeper level, a more guttural, instinctual, eat-meat-raw-and-bloody moment, we understood him as men. His pursuer was a Jezebel –  a wickedly beautiful tormentor none of us could resist, even if we’d tried. And yet he attempted, always no more than a step ahead of her long grasping nails. Barely out of reach. And yet, getting captured by this modern day Delilah, would it really have been such an awful thing? That was how blinding her sex appeal.

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Majestic twin peaks in Arches National Park

I think it was mostly the flowing hair, perfectly fanned and billowed into a cinematographic sculpture. There was, too, the dark green truck. I don’t know why green, when my TV set was black and white. But dark leafy hues best suggest the wild and untamed look he projected, assisted by a faithful companion. These were two men bonded in nature and violence, and not broken by any mountains. The poise between expansive outdoors and close-quarter combat.

Modern day cowboys. American Indians who seemingly preferred to not stay dead. Bobby-Six-Killer never sounded more poetic. A private eye duo that cleansed crime from a land wholly condemned of the original sin. The settlers on the land quipped, ” we shall miscege-Nation our way to Americanness;” successfully burrowing into claims of autochthony that 30, 000 years of settlement decried. But who’s counting?

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It was a millisecond moment that promised a whole life of adventure. Just that exact moment as the soundtrack began, and the TV series title appeared. Before, as it were, the blonde, bronzed limbs of Brooks Shields and her uber-suburban community unfolded. Way in advance of, it turns out, the bedroom misdemeanors that had had the program relegated to 2130 hours: post-national news hour, when adult supervision could be counted on. And if absent, not Kenya Broadcasting Corporation’s care.

The click from the shutter, opening, not closing, uncountable doors in the visual world. I birthed by dreams of dying a photographer midwifed by a Hollywood lens that peddled American sex, drugs, and violence. Could that I had belonged, even as an afterthought, in this pristinely white movie set. Scrubbed entirely of, the Civil War, and the Civil Rights. This was the Nineties, after all, and heaven forbid that the bitter aftertaste of history trouble our determined march towards the future of a new millennium. This is how it was, to be Bold & Beautiful.

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This is the monk who became a daddy. And the son flails in tight upper cuts and round houses, achieving a sense of release unrecoverable since that moment of birth. What weighs this family down, and together, is the impossible search for mother. Mother earth, and Wife earth, absent. This unholy crime-busting trinity is incomplete. The quest is incarnate, as spirit. And so we have before us, ladies and gentlemen, the father, the son, and the searching spirit. There may, too, have been whiffs of whiskey in that deep-pocketed shoulder bag slang on top of a trench coat above the old man’s shoulders. A rebellious spirit this. A spirit of color. A spirit with color.

What Eye Saw – II

Part of my religious education since elementary school has always revolved around Hinduism. Sita and Krishna were not merely names on temple sites in Nairobi, but also deities I read about.   But what really brought this education alive for me was watching the Ramayana epic on TV. Back in the day when Kenya Broadcasting Corporation was the only TV station available, they aired Hindi movies every Sunday afternoon. Most of these were Bollywood hits, complete with subtitles and the musicals. We never watched these films for the acting; it was subpar, and yet there was an allure to viewing a small sliver of a continent we knew little about. Unlike the West, India did not bombard East Africa with enormous amounts of cultural artifacts. Instead, over several centuries, India had shared with us her traders, her laborers, her sailors, her cuisine, her spices, and eventually her rail building expertise.

Ramayana, hence, was both exotic and familiar. Kenyan folk lore was populated with animals who spoke, fought, and interacted with humans. Seeing Hanuman and his monkeys was merely an extension of the hare, leopard, and lion who connived with humans in Gikuyu oral literature.

Sita. Beautiful Sita. 8-armed Elephant God. Multiply armed mihiananu. Idols populate a Hindu mythology book. “That is worship of false gods,” quips my nanny. And yet. And yet, these manifestations of godliness fascinate. Even the winged horse beckons to me, offering insight on the nature of divine power. I know not to how explain these allure, much less to others than to myself. I let go, and dive deep.

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Hindu temple, Mombasa

My canoe. This weekly escapade from an island, waters shimmering silver off the screen. The moon glowing blue as I tune the VHF. I voyage forth into the unknown. My will unfolds ahead of me into adventure. The unknown seduces me into forsaking home. Forsaking chores as I while away in my thoughts; indulging my  whimsy and mind mapping exotic destinations I am yet to call home. Coconuts and palm trees occupy the thin space between dreaming and waking. Sand filters down into my bed sheets, and my piss laps back and forth on the mattress, softly like the sea-green waters. The dimly lit room smells of a beach at dusk, and I peer my eyes into the horizon, confirming that I’ve indeed left all else behind. The firewood kitchen next door wafts into my nose, and I flutter my eyes. At once catching, making, and digging into my piscine meal. I am my own Man Friday.

Because soon, I shall be Home & Away. Not even the thick Aussie accent keeps me at bay. I wander, in and out of these middle-class lives, intent on small town living. The restaurant. The beach. Each spot echoes back to me, frustratingly, mirroring my own inactivity. The girl. There’s always one. This time she has long flowing hair, brunette. And dimples that wink each time she yells at an older, ruder brother. Teenage pregnancy. I plug in and out of the thickening plot. The predictability of the narrative is a large part of its success. This could be me. Could be us. If you ignore the trappings of the first world. Later on, when I finally visit the Opera House, I shall wonder at the writing off of darker hued peoples from this landscape. The result of anxious settlers eager to assuage their own culpability.

On Reading … (Part III)

Another publication that suffered from serious malnutrition in representing people of  color was the Tintin collection. Instead, the comic series made up for this dearth via numerous stereotypical depictions of Native Americans and Asians. When Tintin finally chose to include Africans, the caricatures were more than offensive. They were over the top; the author dug deep into Europe’s stock of racist African images and paraded these within the covers. Cannibals wielding a humongous pot seeking to make a meal of Tintin and his pet Snowy? Check. A jungle seething with venomous snakes and vicious wildlife? Check. Naked, bone-clad witch doctors? Check. Tintin Au Congo had all these and more. It’s quite wild when you think about it, really The Congo, after bearing the brunt of Belgium and French colonial occupation, was subsequently subjected to cartoonist Georges Remi’s civilizing pen. Remi, more well-known as Herge’, reverts to 18th century iconography in portraying Africans. Herge’s Congolese characters are, much like Joseph Conrad’s, brutes with vaguely human features.

Working with literature in high school was a joy. I had the privilege of learning under teachers who truly enjoyed language and what it could achieve. Kiswahili literature, Fasihi, was taught to us by Misters Ruo and Sarara. Shamba la Wanyama, a Swahili translation of George Orwell’s Animal Farm, was just annoying. The language seemed archaic. There was little about the diction that was creative, flippant, and dynamic, attributes I associated with Kenya’s street and vernacular languages. Rather, Shamba felt heavily weighed down by grammatical structure. The ideas therein made much sense, however. I could wholly identify with the key questions raised about distribution of national resources and the elitism that accompanied political office. Aside from that, the rest was simply too lofty.

Ken Walibora’s Siku Njema was more my thing. The romance novel was, in retrospect, not very politically ambitious. It adopted a neoliberal outlook without much in the way of critical engagement. Characters were poor and impoverished not due to the economic policies instituted at the national level, but because of their own individual circumstances. Nevertheless, the text approached language with a reverence I appreciated. And communities were not merely pawns in an expansive game of chess, but actually individual subjects whose dreams, desires, and fears were worth understanding. The novel might have been utopian, but unlike Orwell’s Shamba La Wanyama, it did not limit human lives to production and labor. Creativity was a vital part of Walibora’s world. The lyricism in his language was refreshing; it paid homage to the great poetic tradition in Kiswahili. More importantly, his word choice enabled him to better tug at our teenage heartstrings. Sometimes the characters underwent extremely sad experiences; for instance, the protagonist was mistreated by his guardian, an aunt who accommodated him after he was orphaned. Other times there was fear, so palpable it vaulted from off the page. Like when the main character runs for his life, pursued by a knife-wielding childhood rival. And, of course, there was love. Lots of love: the innocent kind of love between young friends exploring their new physical awareness; the sellable kind of love that was transacted between characters; and the unrequited love that Walibora’s hero repeatedly got invitations to, each time fleeing in the opposite direction.

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The River & The Source

Leading us in English literary studies was Joshua Musee, a man who has remained my friend to this day.  There was much that we read together, but The Burdens by John Ruganda and Margaret Ogola’s The River and the Source stood out. Musee’s class readings of Ruganda’s play dramatized the work into our classroom space. He basically performed the text with his voice. Ogola’s novel was phenomenal. In the 2 years that I used it for my fourth form national exams, I must have re-read it about 10 times. There were many passages I could recite, especially the refrains that occur in the text and which Ogola composes as a chorus to the larger narrative. Akoko Obanda, the protagonist, came alive to me in the form of my maternal grandmother. Her great granddaughter, Vera, was a role model. I lived, breathed, and identified with these personalities. There was nothing abstract about this fiction. Ogola’s was a true novel. Becky, Vera’s sister, a young woman who vigorously wielded her sexuality, eventually succumbs to AIDS. This hit close to home. My mom’s eldest brother, after whom I’m named, had passed away about 4 years prior, due to complications with HIV/AIDS. These were the early days of the disease, at least in Kenya. A diagnosis, if there ever was one, often came very late, and was publicly understood to be a death sentence. I witnessed family friends, 2 couples in fact, die in the same manner; first the wives, then the husbands. Add to that list one of my dad’s younger sister, Aunty Wanjiku – a really funny, vibrant woman. A literary examination of Ogola’s narrative wasn’t so much a close reading analysis as a reflection on the lives my community and extended family lived.

Ian Serraillier’s The Silver Sword affected me in ways I had not anticipated. On the one hand there was a great sense of adventure, as a group of children travelled across the Bavarian countryside fleeing from Nazi Germany. In this way, The Silver Sword sowed an interest in understanding World War II that has endured since then. And yet, there was horror. Lots of it. Though certainly written as a children’s book, and hence void of the graphic brutality that other WWII narratives such as Saving Private Ryan depict, Serraillier’s work had an underlying sense of fear that was palpable. I understood  the Polish family’s misery as they fought starvation and the elements, all while fleeing the SS and evading capture. There is certainly the sense that this is a group of siblings who have been torn apart; and when healing finally arrives, it will only cover emotional wounds that are too deep to ever forget.

Both the picaresque and the humor of Wind in the Willows made it a truly remarkable text. Toad, the protagonist, sets off on a voyage down the river he has lived beside for many years. Many exploits await (him?) her in the journey ahead. What drew me to this book most, however, was the sense of travel and freedom. The world was truly Toad’s oyster and he went about savoring it. The inquisitiveness and curiosity that are behind Toad’s acquisition of a boat, preparation for the trip, and finally saying goodbye to friends before heading out are the same feelings I experience before each trip, even today. Each day on the road presents itself as a new opportunity to re-invent myself. That’s a rare gift we nomads have; routines have a way of wearing us down to a monotonous set of habits. Thankfully, the open road beckons!

Out to Town

My first encounter with Kenya’s HIV/AIDS pandemic was during the 1989 Nairobi Agricultural Show. My dad’s eldest brother, Baba Amos, invited me to accompany him and some of his kids to the event. The Agricultural Show of Kenya has been a mainstay of Nairobi’s social scene for the last half century. Living in Gikambura, going to the ASK was a big ass deal! This was a trip that endowed you with major street cred.

Just imagine, you’d take a bus to town, dressed in your best outfit from the previous Christmas season. Getting on the bus, on its own, would already make you the recipient of serious envy from your village counterparts. Then of course, once you got to town you’d get to view tall buildings – skyscrapers that seemed to sway with the wind when you looked up. These views made for stories you could use to shut your buddies up as you displayed how suave you were. And then there was the food. French fries, more popularly known as chips, soda, and candy were all delicacies that you could look forward to on a trip to town. Finally, the ASK was well known for its gaudy paraphernalia. You’d come home with sunglasses – a novelty in the village – paper sun visors that were attached to your head using a rubber band, and if you were really lucky, perhaps a cheap, brightly colored watch.

Heading back home from the ASK, one also always brought back brightly colored posters. This time round, I came back armed with blood red ads about HIV, its spread, and the use of condoms. Sex, and STDs, didn’t particularly make much sense to me, but I could appreciate the fear with which adults around me discussed this new disease. Within days, the ABCs of combating HIV/AIDS – Abstinence, Be faithful, or Condomize – were plastered all over our tin metal walls, pasted using a sticky, pancake-like mixture of wheat flour and cold water.

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I spent much of the 90s reading Parents magazine. I relished the portrait sketches that the monthly journal published for its adult audience. While there was nothing overtly pornographic about its content, Parents regularly discussed sex – especially as it pertained to the lives of heterosexual married couples.

It is here that writers informed me that HIV/AIDS was an STD. Adding this knowledge to what we were learning in Home Science – a school subject that taught young Kenyan pupils how to be better domestic managers – I began to understand the implications of the disease. It is here, too, that I read how the remains of those who had succumbed to the virus, especially in the early, scary years, were wrapped up in plastic bags and hurriedly buried by the government. There was much shame and terror in these tales, and I returned to them often. I could soon match colorful cover to gory details in the content within. I re-read the names of the participants in these sagas of the AIDS epidemic and simultaneously sympathized, even as I relished my voyeur position vis-a-vis their horror.

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A majority of students who successfully complete the Kenya Certificate of Primary Education (KCPE) have at one point or another encountered the following prompt for their English composition: “The Day I Went to the City.” This theme is especially a staple for English teachers outside the major urban areas. Going to the metropolis is an event worth memorializing using grade 6 language skills. Often, to score really well, a student must inject a profusion of bombastic words, as well as archaic sayings and expressions. If you truly wish to get an A, begin somewhere along the lines of, “Feeling as happy as a king, I whistled like a lark, and left my family flabbergasted at my excitement.” Suffice it to say that Ernest Hemingway’s simple prose would have garnered him a fail, and possibly lashes on his backside.

With me, (this is another staple of Kenyan English – a consequence of our varied multilingual heritage) I was not particularly amused on one of my first visits to Nairobi CBD. I was around 6 and had accompanied my mom to town so I could visit the dentist. An employee of the soon-to-be-defunct Kenya National Assurance Ltd. mom was entitled to health insurance for herself and family. A benefit of this, if you wish to call it that, is that I got to visit the dentist regularly. This time round we were dealing with potential cavities, and looking at how my teeth were already developing out of line. Having lost my milk teeth, my new teeth needed to be perfect. The numbing injection, the drilling, and the fillings were only worth the discomfort because I later got to choose a slice of cake at the upscale Thorn Tree Hotel. Talk about paradox – walking out of the dentist’s office only to add more cavity-causing sugar into my diet.

Mum had to go back to work for the afternoon. However, I couldn’t simply hang around the office till it was time to head back home. The solution was to speak with one of the drivers/conductors that she knew on the Nairobi-Gikambura route and ask them to keep an eye on me as I rode back home alone. This was big boy stuff! I looked forward to sharing my adventure with kids back at home; I’d get to explain how I’d taken the bus, ridden all the way to Gikambura on my own, and managed to get home safely.

I sat by the window, looking out at trees and buildings sped by. I could recognize some of the towns and villages we passed by: Satellite, where my cousins lived, Kawangware, Dagoretti Center, and finally Thogoto. I could certainly recognize the big “Welcome to Gikambura” sign that Sportman Cigarettes had out up as you approached the town. I got off the bus just a few meters from where uncles Njoro and Martin used to take their homemade vehicles for a ride. Back then, this was a sloping tarmacked road where wooden go-karts could speed down, often attaining speeds of up to 40mph. The two of them, thick as thieves, would ignore warnings about dangerous this thrill seeking was. My grandma could only imagine what would happen if the two, speeding downhill at hair-raising speeds, met head-on with a passenger bus. The potential fatalities made my grandma very strict about Njoro not going on these adventures. She shouldn’t have bothered. More than once she caught him flying down the slope on yet another go-kart invention. Thankfully, they both survived boyhood with no broken limbs but many a scratch.