A Gorgeous Woman in a Movie Theater

Walking across Bul, my old haunts, with Lorraine gave me mucho social capital. This was quite an improvement from the surreptitious caresses I had previously stolen while watching action flicks in a makeshift cinema hall. I was in form 2. This is the age when high schoolers begin to stretch, bend, or wholly ignore the rules. Form 1 is all about survival, and the excitement of finally leaving behind the churlish world of primary school. Often, you’ll be bullied as older and tougher students set you straight on how beneath them you are on the totem pole of high school hierarchies. Monos, the as the sniveling, low-life form ones are called, have two options: cry for help, and be mama’s baby for your entire high school career, or bite your lip, persevere, and look forward to meting out the same punishment to junior boys next year.

Well, Aga Khan Academy had no space for bullies. No government minister, or wealthy business magnate, was paying a fortune in tuition just for their kid to get knuckled every afternoon. Aside from that, my cohort never got a younger breed of monos on whom we could exercise our tyranny. AKA offered three kinds of high school education: the Kenyan national curriculum, the International Baccalaureate, and the British IGCSE. Students studying the KCSE paid the least in tuition. We were the poor distant relatives. No wonder the institution decided to do away with this option. We were the last class to take sit for national KCSE exams in 2001. and we knew better than to try and intimidate our richer compatriots.

That, however, did not stop us from breaking the rules in other ways. My favorite was making an unsanctioned (by my parents, that is) stop at an Indie movie theater. These venues were the height of ingenuity. Kids love TV. Unfortunately, in my version of suburbia, TVs were a luxury – not so much in terms of buying, but in regards to maintaining it. Sure, you could arm yourself with a cheap Chinese-made home theater – aka a 21″ black and white telly – but that didn’t solve the energy challenge. We were not connected to the national power grid. Up until the 2002 Kibaki administration, connection to power was a political largesse reserved for the well-heeled. You prayed that one of your local councilors or Members of Parliament was in the good graces of the Big Man in State House. If not, languish in darkness! You’d use kerosene lamps for the house, and run the TV using a car battery. Bul Bul was a major enough town center, right on Ngong Road, to warrant connection to the electrical grid. An entrepreneur rented space, placed about 10 wooden benches in there, all facing a 32 inch TV that, for security purposes, was always locked in a metal cage. Even when you paid the KSHS 10 admission fee to go watch a movie. This was such a rare treat, the proprietor must have been anxious someone would walk out with the electronic equipment just as the main actor was about to kick ass.

You could watch all kinds of things here. Saturday and Sunday afternoons offered English and Spanish soccer matches. You may have been born in Kangawa, had no idea where the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport was, but you lived, breathed, and bled Manchester United. Or Barcelona. Or Deportivo La Corona, Chelsea, Arsenal, and many more. But these team afiliations were also about glory. I’m yet to find someone who roots for Newcastle Upon Tyne. No space for losers here.

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Saturday and Sunday afternoons offered English and Spanish soccer matches.

Weekday evenings, from about 5pm, featured action flicks. Think of the big global brands in action films: Rambo, Terminator, Bond, Jean Calude Van Damme, The Rock, Bruce Lee, Steven Seagal and Jackie Chan. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson appeared on the screens multiple times during the week. The movie operator decided to start showing World Wrestling Federation matches on Wednesday nights. These were apparently as big a hit with grown men as they were with school boys. In primary schools, we adopted WWF monikers: The Undertaker, Hulk Hogan, Papa Shango, Coco-T. if boys wanted to tease you, they snickered Yokozuna each time you walked by. If you’ve ever seen the 400 pound Japanese Sumo wrestler, styling a thong, you’d clearly see why this was not a complement.

I went in mostly for the action. Martial arts, close-quarter hand combat, crime thrillers with epic car chases, those were my staple. I craved the adrenaline. Loved the sweaty smell as strangers squeezed onto an uncomfortable wooden bench, craning their neck each time a new patron walked down the aisles. Since the cinema needed zero light penetration to ensure the best movie experience for its customers, this meant the theater was a claustrophobia-inducing cube. No light in or out. And no air, in or out. It was stuffy as hell. And by the time you exited, as the credits rolled on, you’d re-emerge almost as though from a cave. Blind as a bat.

And then there was the commentary. This is a unique phenomenon I’ve not seen replicated anywhere else. It’s kinda like having subtitles on your movie, except that they’re provided as live commentary. The same kind of commenting that accompanies sports events, soccer, baseball, football, or basketball. It’s often in Sheng or Gikuyu, and it’s amazingly hilarious to listen to. Since we were mostly watching Hollywood hits, American English was the default language. Which is fine until you’re faced with an audience that has not graduated high school, and whose comfort with accents is minimal. But why should that stop anyone from enjoying a movie. The solution Nairobi designed was to have commentator who, even though his level of English may not be much better, had pre-viewed the movie, and could walk the audience through the plot line. Hollywood action flicks have a fairly copy-paste plot line: good guy enjoying life; bad guy messes up good guy’s life; good guy has to kick some ass; bad guy is taken care of; good guy gets the girl and drives off into the sunset. The End. Commentators helped the audience figure out Good guy and Bad guy. And then they began to add their own sound effects. And, since they provided commentary in local dialects, their storytelling was inevitably colored by local colloquialisms.

“Basiiiii, wapenziiii, watazamaji!” “So noooow, dear audience!” You inevitably smiled when you heard the DJ begin his film commentary. These folks actually have a lot of fun at work. If you get the movie’s dialogue, it’s annoying as hell to have to listen to their often inaccurate voice-overs. But once you give yourself into the experience, it’s actually super funny. The descriptions of the villain and the hero are laced with innuendo, and whatever insults are currently hot on the street. In case you’ve missed the “Word of the Day” during your matatu commute, the DJ makes sure you’re all caught up.

There was more than language to be appreciated from these spaces. Did I mention that the space had an air of debauchery? I’m pretty certain they’d air blue movies after a certain hour. Movies Za-Kaende, as they’re known in Sheng, needed a 21+ rating. No Kids allowed. I couldn’t stay out past 9pm on a school night, so I never had the pleasure. I did indulge, however, in flirting with a regular. I never quite figured out why she was often in the audience. She could either have been the proprietor’s daughter, or the DJ’s girlfriend.

But she was more comfortable in this macho theater than I was. And that was sexy to watch. One time I was lucky, her usual spot next to the DJ was occupied. Her only other option: the empty bench beside me. I scooted over in a welcoming gesture. I didn’t dare hope that she’d take me up on my offer. I struggled to hide my excitement when she did! We whispered hello to each other. The best thing about chatting up a gorgeous woman in a movie theater is that you have to get real close. The sound track is booming, and other patrons don’t appreciate being interrupted. No choice but to get inside each other’s personal bubble. Her shoulder brushed up against mine, our fingers were soon dancing, seemingly on their own. They yawned for each other, before filling up with the other’s palm and warmth. Our only acknowledgement for this pleasure: an occasional  smile, barely visible from the light bouncing on our faces from the TV screen upfront. That is one film I’d replay ad infinitum.

 

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Read, To Promote World Peace

In my current Caribbean Literature course, my students and I just finished reading V. S. Naipaul’s Miguel Street. I’ve loved this book since I was in high school. In some ways, it was surreal to be using the same copy I read back at home, while teaching at a state university I never knew existed until just a few years ago. The humor in the text still entertains, and the depictions of violence that Naipaul deploys are just as troubling.

Lincoln, Nebraska is not your grandmother’s holiday destination. In the public eye, especially to folks in the North East or the West coast, this is the middle of nowhere. Literally. And there may be some truth to that. Whenever I’m in Kenya, friends and family always ask me where I currently reside. In college, when I said I lived in Pennsylvania, that made sense. Miami was the cause of envy during my stay there for graduate school. I’d often get concerns about how I was EVER able to study while living so close to the beach and all the debauchery that Hollywood portrays about South Florida. None of that happens now that I’ve moved to Lincoln. More often people are just confused about where on the U.S. map they’d locate  Nebraska. For me though, what’s most remarkable is that there’s always something familiar about the unknown.

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The humor in the text still entertains, and the depictions of violence that Naipaul deploys are just as troubling.

We read Naipaul’s Miguel Street but we didn’t simply turn pages. We also listened to Calypso by Harry Belafonte and Calypso Rose. The novel has so many allusions to music it would have been crazy not to. Looking to better understand how humor works in Trinidad, we watched drama by Learie Joseph on YouTube. We engaged with Trinidad and Tobago’s history vis-a-vis Caribbean institutions of slavery, the production of sugar and rum, and foreign occupation. This last one came under many forms: Spanish, Dutch, and French dominion, British colonialism, and even American military installations during WWII. In other words, we approached “reading” from a very expansive point of view. My intent was to make familiar a small island nation in the Caribbean that most students may not have previously heard of. And for those who had, this was more often under familiar narratives of tourism–and the paradise waiting to be discovered in Trinidad–or third world poverty–and the hungry, naked children in need of western charity. Rarely would western media highlight the creativity in the region: poets, musicians, or even Carnival attendees.

It’s easy for me to find commonalities with strangers. As a child, I grew up plugged in to a diverse range of global cultural production. While I physically didn’t leave Kenya until I was 18, for years before that I’d intellectually explored North America, Britain and parts of continental Europe, India, Australia, and South Africa. How did this happen? By reading.

Growing up, whatever disposable income my family had was geared towards funding our education. And even then it was often not enough. Hence, toys were mostly out of the question. I got a bright red tricycle when I was three. Once I out grew that, that was the end of me having a bike at home. I loved wristwatches. To get one, however, I’d often have to bargain with my mother, and the purchase was conditional upon me performing really well at school. Our TV set was a 14″ black and white tube for the longest time. But even though toys and cool electronic gadgets were rare at home, the trappings of middle class respectability that really got me green with envy were BOOKS.

I especially loved detective stories. And Enid Blyton’s Famous Five series was absolutely at the top of that list. Following the adventures of four kids and a dog solving crime in the English countryside left me feeling like I’d just travelled with them. Nancy Drew and The Hardy Boys had the same effect. Caroline Keene’s and Franklin Dixon’s books, respectively, helped me map out the United States long before I ever set foot here for college. I crisscrossed Europe with TinTin’s eponymous protagonist, his pet dog Snowy, and his occasional companions: the Captain and the two professors. Right alongside Asterix and Obelix, two cartoon characters, I fought colonizing 1st century Romans, rooting for the Gauls. Obviously.

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Caroline Keene’s and Franklin Dixon’s books, respectively, helped me map out the United States long before I ever set foot here for college.

Reading such a wide range of stories was great. It was, as I’ve also come to discover, terribly one-sided. Keene and Dixon each have about 65 books in their series. I can count on one hand the number of characters who are people of color. Between the two of them, these authors wrote an America that was white-washed to the extreme! Unintentionally, on their part, that glaring omission actually speaks volumes. It is wholly representative of how the American nation has historically reacted to communities of color. But in some ways The Adventures of Tintin was actually worse. Belgian Cartoonist Georges Remi DID feature Native Americans and even Congolese Africans in his work. But these appearances were soaked in racial stereotypes. “Red Indians” attempted to scalp Tintin, while big-lipped Congolese savages cooked him in a pot.

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Keene and Dixon each have about 65 books in their series. I can count on one hand the number of characters who are people of color.

India featured large in my childhood. There were Asians in Nairobi shops, some of whom were newly-emigrated, but many of whom were third and fourth generation Kenyans. But even more exciting were Bollywood films on national TV every Sunday afternoon. Yes, these movies were sappy, and the characters broke into song every ten minutes. But the storylines were great. Recreations of the Hindu epic, Ramayana, had small boys naming themselves Hanuman and re-creating the struggle to save Sita during lunch break at school. There was much that was strange about this cinema, but there was so much more that we found intriguing and cool. India might have been far away, but it was portrayed to seem much closer. Perceptions of distance shrunk. Home and Away, an Australian TV show broadcast the land Down Under straight into my living room on weekday evenings.

Reading will not singlehandedly stop WWIII. But fiction, music, cinema, poetry and a range of other cultural artifacts are a great way to begin conversations with “strangers.” Reading, widely defined, inspires the imagination. We begin to seek new connections that emphasis curiosity over prejudice, understanding over antagonism. Reading is not an end by itself, but it’s a pretty good first step. White Allies of the BLM movement have been directed to online reading lists. Reading might seem passive and solitary, but regimes that ban literature know this is absolutely not true. Reading can also mobilize communities of resistance. So go on, find a book, song, or film from a place you know absolutely nothing about, and make the strange familiar. Alternatively, dig a little deeper into someone, something, or somewhere you know pretty well, and discover aspects of their existence you’d never imagined. Make the familiar strange.

Herds Boy Tales

One school holiday, after spending all term making puppy eyes at Irene – to no avail – I went to stay with Grandma. It couldn’t be a school holiday without going to Ocha in Juja. Grandma’s was great! First of all there was tons of milk, weather permitting. And for lunch, she’d often make thoroko. These vegetables are great in fiber, which I couldn’t have known back then. But thoroko have such strange texture; they’re really chewy. You could masticate on a mouthful for 5 minutes, and still not have sucked out all that juiciness. As a little boy, chewing on these strange tasting veggies was such a delight. Then there was always the chance of taking grandma’s dog for a hunt, and returning home with a rabbit or a young antelope – both delicious game meats.

In April, during the rainy season, Juja floods. This meant herding grandma’s livestock shod in gumboots or plastic sandals. Turns out you get terrible heat burn when you do that. For an 11-year old boy, the best part about living away from your mother for 3 weeks is that you don’t have to shower every single evening. Hence, all of a sudden, I had more time in the evening to challenge Njoro, my uncle, and grandma’s youngest kid, into farting contests. This being just a few years after the 1st American adventure in Iraq and Kuwait, our flatulence was appropriately named SCUD missiles and RPGs.

Our evening competitions over, we’d go to bed. Or rather I should say, I swam to bed. I was one of those kids who didn’t stop wetting their beds till really late. I mean like 10 or 11-years-old-late. My mother took me to see a sleep specialist. But that didn’t help. And once she quit her job, out went health insurance. I never returned to see the doctor. Instead, I went through a ridiculous number of mattresses, each lasting only slightly longer than the previous one as I doused them nightly with urine. In the middle, where a puddle would form each night, was usually the first spot to wear thin. Then a large tear would appear, eventually making its way to one of the corners, and thus rendering the mattress quite useless. With time, it made more sense that I use the hand-me-down mattresses that either my parents or my sisters had worn thin. That way it wasn’t such a loss to witness the mattress shrink and shrivel a la my nocturnal activities. It did, however, mean that I’d have to make several trips each morning taking out individual bedding pieces to dry in the sun. Usually I’d try and hang them out of sight; that way no neighborhood kids would ask awkward questions.

When I spent the holidays at Grandmas, I’d sleep in the living room, on the couch – my uncle Njoro having had it till up here with my nightly liquid adventures. We tried all kinds of tricks. One night I was banned from drinking tea just before going to bed. That didn’t help. Then I was asked not to drink any water after sundown. The next morning my couch was still soaked. As a list ditch attempt, Njoro woke me up around 3am to pee outside. I staggered out the door, eyes half-closed, tried not to pee on my feet, then stumbled back to bed. I woke up to even more pee than usual; this time not only had I wet the couch and the cushions, the floor was also flooded. Peeing in bed was like a curse! I started to worry that someone with an evil eye had indeed bewitched me, jealous that I was doing so well in school. Grandma and Njoro resigned themselves to the daily stink. And like clockwork, the sun would rise on me and my soggy beddings. December days are usually pretty warm and dry in Juja. That was lucky, because then my cushions would be dry by the evening when I brought them back inside.

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When school was out, in addition to cows and goats, they’d also send him young boys to help in tracking and corralling the animals.

Having laid out my beddings and cleaned up, I’d quickly do breakfast – often a plate of whatever was left over from dinner last night – and head out to meet Wa Ngoiri, our herdsman. Folks in the community sent him their livestock daily, and he’d look after them for a fee. When school was out, in addition to cows and goats, they’d also send him young boys to help in tracking and corralling the animals. And this is how I met Githu; he and I were assigned as Wa Ngoiri’s helpers. We’d get together first, merge our cattle, and drive them towards the larger herd. The rest of the day was spent sitting, whistling after errant goats, and stoning any village dogs that came too close to the sheep. While our supervisor may not have allowed it, we’d certainly have tried to initiate a bull fight between our largest animal, a light brown steer named Kilonzi, and smaller young males from competing herds. At lunch time, we’d find some shade, and while the animals chewed curd, we’d munch on ugali – soggy from sitting in sukuma wiki stew.

The day Wa Ngoiri “called in sick” Githu and I took charge. There were no cell phones so we didn’t know our lead herdsman won’t be at work till he sent a neighbor’s five-year old boy to my grandma early that morning. Granny explained that we’d have to make sure we keep the cattle in the old sisal plantations; this was the area with the most grass. I was also directed that in the afternoon we slowly make our way to the usual watering dam so the cows and goats could drink. Ever dutiful, I made sure Githu did all that. Finally, at 3pm, when the air is filled with bees shuttling back and forth to their hives, we sat down for lunch. We chose a rocky formation, giving us a good vantage over the resting animals. Today’s menu was cold rice, cooked in a broth of onions, tomatoes, and potatoes. This was 5-star dining and Githu wanted in. I was not too happy to share, especially since in return I only got his githeri stew. I took a few spoonfuls of the watery lunch and gave up.

Lunch over, we nestled in the grass to digest our food. Our backs rested against the rock, mimicking the animals when they wanted to scratch an itch. Lazily, we ended up on our backs, staring up at the sky. My hands wondered first, on to his pants, and eventually slid in under the loose elastic waistband. He sported neither undies nor boxers. No surprise there, he was a village boy to the core – after all. He took his penis in his right hand, grinning, and lanced my hand with it. I accepted the challenge, drawing forth my own weapon in preparation for this close quarter duel. Githu sat straddling me, his legs on either side of mine. I lay on my back, gazing through at the clouds when not engaged in the sword play we’d invented. I also kept an eye out for any intruder. Although we couldn’t exactly name whatever we were doing, we’d been socialized well enough to anticipate that adults would not appreciate our nudity. Eventually our curiosity abated; the mutual exploration ended and we got dressed. The sun was sinking in the horizon and it was time to lead the cattle back home.

Aga Khan Academy – Prison Break

My parents might not have placed any silver spoons in our mouths at birth, but they did try their best to instill high morals. Essentially, even though cash was sometimes hard to come by, the little they had was acquired by honest means. One would expect their son to have inherited the same values. But alas, it was not always so.

Aga Khan Academy had a swimming pool; and in our first year, Mr. Mdogo the Physical Ed teacher, took it upon himself to teach whichever one of us villagers who still couldn’t swim. I’d of course previously done the usual accompany-other-village-boys-to-the-river thing in Kangawa. We’d undress to our undies and jump  in. Some of the kiddos actually knew enough to float and kick in the right direction. But it was such a high bravado activity, the boys as intent on getting wet as they were to wow the group of girls watching, that I normally shied away. Not to mention that we often went to Ngai Ndeithia, as the pool was called, on our way home from the forest to gather firewood. I’d already be feeling inadequate that my load was the lightest compared to the other boys, no pun intended. The last thing I wanted was to display one more area where they excelled better than myself. And there was also the potential for trouble. No one quite knew how deep the pool went, or what debris was underneath the water. Hence the aptly chosen Gikuyu moniker, God-Help-Me.

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Mr. Mdogo the Physical Ed teacher, took it upon himself to teach whichever one of us villagers who still couldn’t swim.

So Mdogo got us into the pool. We were a gang of four: Muthama, Orora, Bajaber, and myself. This was humiliating work. We were out there on the shallow end treading water, holding onto the ropes for dear life while other folks performed fish-like tumble turns. Learning to swim is like being re-born. All of a sudden you’re in a new dimension of the universe where you’re expected to keep your mouth open, breath, and kick ALL at the same time. No wonder newborns look so damn grouchy. And it was probably worse for the other three because they were all very skilled footballers; I wasn’t. I was just as likely to score past my own goalie as not. But I did have a tenacity and stubbornness when it came to “marking my man” that made me a formidable defender – when I put my mind to it. For me, swimming was a new skill; for them, every second spent inside that Chlorine soup was psychological torture designed to keep them away from their first love: the soccer pitch. I also suspect that Mato and Pato couldn’t swim, and never learnt, but they were hardened Don’t-Cares so Mdogo might just have given up! There was also a future Miss Kenya in the group of novices. But for her it made sense; soon to be clad in two-piece bikinis, it would be a good thing that she didn’t drown during a photo shoot.

That was us on the shallow end. On the opposite side, acting like they’d literally been born in water were Hussein and a bunch of form two boys. Man, those guys were good! From the effortless dive into a pool, to the strokes, to the turn around, they all made taking laps look as easy as eating buttered bread. Needless to say, I was envious. And I vowed that even if I couldn’t do a perfect butterfly, I’d at least make sure I learnt enough not to drown. So I practiced during Physical Ed: that one hour break we got once or twice a week in order to exercise our pubescent bodies. And I practiced after school. At 3:30pm, with classes over, one could go jump in the pool, as long as there was a lifeguard present. Sometimes I even practiced during lunchtime. I was slowly making headway. Even though I couldn’t do it for more than five strokes, I at least understood the concept behind bringing my head up to breath, rather than making a complete halt just to fill my lungs with precious oxygen.

I even got mother to buy me a pair of swimming trunks. Nylon biker shorts, really; blue, with some floral patterns in white, they definitely looked somewhat feminine. I didn’t let that stop me. I’d change in the bathrooms located right next to the pool. We all did. Boys had their own changing/shower space where you’d don your swimming costumes, or your soccer kit. There weren’t any lockers so we’d just leave our bags in there. It was then that I started going through people’s school bags, looking for their wallets. I’d identify a rich-looking bag, quickly rifle through the pants and pull out any cash I came across. After returning the clothes same way I found them, I’d walk out trying to act normal. I did this a couple of times without getting caught, and used the stolen money to buy my first film camera.

I’d always been into photography, and was at that time obsessed with Mo’ Amin. Amin was a legendary Kenyan-Asian photojournalist. He’d been to all the hotspots in the region, from Somalia, to Zanzibar during a coup in the early 60s. When he had his arm blown off during an assignment, he recovered, got a prosthetic, and kept on working. His tragic death in a 1996 plane crash was surreal. The Ethiopian Airlines flight he’d boarded to Nairobi was hijacked, only to run out of fuel off the Comoros coast. I would look at Amin’s photobooks and dream of travelling as much as he had. A camera seemed to be the magic wand to make that happen, and I was eager to acquire one. Getting my parents to buy me one was out of the question. I could have saved my lunch money, KSHS 50 daily, and accumulated enough for the camera. But that would have taken several weeks, and, after all, forbidden fruit tastes sweetest. I was experimenting with being a thug, and chose to go all the way in.

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.