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.

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On Reading … (Consuming White Pop Culture)

More than once, all our good intentions to work hard and be responsible were jeopardized by TV. What could our young minds do but bend in awe of television dramas such as The Passions (UK), Home & Away (Australia) and Smurfs (USA)? The latter was especially addictive. It was an animation series, with a blue Smurf family: Papa Smurf, Mama Smurf, and a whole bunch of Smurf kids, aunts and uncles. The villain was a carnivorous cat, and its equally vile owner. Oh, and the show had the catchiest sound track ever. Even though I couldn’t tell why, there was something clearly American about the cartoon. And indeed it was, the original Smurfs (Les Schtroumpfs) aired in Belgium in the late Seventies. It was then imported into the North American market during the Eighties. Although production had stopped by 1989, it was so popular that reruns of the original shows aired well into the 2000s.

There was a lot of American pop culture circulating in my childhood. The two most significant books been the Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys fiction series. Owning one of these books was badass; it gave you major street cred at school – regardless of whether you’d read them or not! Usually, it meant that the owner came from a family wealthy enough to buy imported books, or that they had visited the U.S. and bought the books there. Both possibilities totally tantalized our schoolboy minds. It was not unusual to have to beg and borrow before acquiring the reading rights of a Hardy Boys book. Often, the owner would only let you read the book at school, no way they’d allow you to go home with it. For one, you might choose to conveniently forget the book at your house the next day, or the kid’s parents might ask to see the book that evening. Books were expensive; if they went missing, even for an evening, you could expect a scolding, at best, or maybe even a spanking. But sometimes I’d be lucky enough to take a book home, sometime even for a weekend. Bliss!

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Consuming American Pop Culture

In the current, supposedly, “post-racial” American social scene, it’s quite fascinating thinking back to Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew. These books had NO black characters, not one. Zilch. Sleuthing and clever detective work was a decidedly white, middle-class pursuit that folks of color were simply not privy to. Either black people had no crime in their neighborhoods or they were wholly unable to tackle it. Probably more of the latter. The protagonists in both texts had this aura of leisure. They pursued detective work because they had the time, and the resources for it. They had access to vehicles, computer and telecommunications equipment, cash, contacts, etc. that were clearly part and parcel of their social class. This was a world apart from the one I occupied. Where I lived, white people were rare and far between. And always rich. In the novels, people who looked like me barely showed up. I accepted those two worlds as is.

The British Famous Five series had many of the same features.  4 white kids, and their dog, who went on holidays, visited the circus, sniffed out trouble, and solved it. There was a nomadic air to these kids. I got the sense that they could travel anywhere they wanted. Even their dog seemed to have a better life than I did. I tried to collar on one of the mutts we were always trying to domesticate. My dog couldn’t appreciate that I was beckoning him into a world of mystery and adventure. One where we’d skulk around our neighborhood in the dead of night, skipping in and out of shadows as we cursed the bright moon. Glory and fame awaited our crime-busting duo! After several attempts I gave up on the uncultured canine. I’m certain I saw a flicker of rejoicing on that dog’s face.

Song for My Ancestress (Part II)

 

Grandma’s house had a green wooden door. The timber had been cut into thin bamboo-like pieces, polished and put together using carpenter’s glue and nails. My great grandfather, who had made a career working with wood, had built her home right next to their own on a plot of land Gathiri had helped her parents buy.

Later, after buying land in what had previously been a colonial sisal plantation, Juja, grandma moved. Not having the capital to purchase new material and build a permanent structure, she opted to tear down her tin shack three-roomed house and re-use the iron sheets for her new home. The tin roofing was carefully pried free from the nails; and the timber was cautiously set aside in the hopes of rejoining the house. After the whole house had been torn apart, her furniture was piled into a lorry and the long drive to Juja Farm commenced. That first night, after arriving and unloading everything, they slept in the open – exposed to the elements and, back then, woodland savannah teeming with a colorful array of wildlife.

Decades later, I’ve often heard that locals warned the arriving party not to build on the site they’d chosen but their advice fell on deaf ears. During the April school holidays when I’d visit grandma, the house would occasionally seep water through the floor or through the back wall. Every rainy season, behind the house, there existed a swamp – with the mandatory, obnoxiously loud, male bull frog.

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Grandma in a white blouse with a colleague during a 1961 trip to Israel

My mom says grandma was not an especially gifted businesswoman. Having spent much of her career in white collar positions, she was slow in adapting to the rigors of the jua kali (self-employed) sector. Some of my earliest memories of her are as a charcoal seller, operating a kiosk in Gikambura, on one of the back alleys that faced away from the market. It was in those same shadowy spaces that I’d hear Zaire’s Mbilia Mbel and Franco take over Kenyan airwaves with their seductive Lingala rhumba.

Grandma was, however, a gifted farmer. She could wrench the fruits of the earth from what had been previously barren soil. Her Juja neighbors thought her mad when she planted, of all things, trees on her farm. “Trees don’t grow here!” they vowed, using the same warning tone they’d invoked about the swampy building site. They were wrong. My grandma’s compound became one of the few where you could see trees. The area is flat, grassland savanna; trees can be seen from miles away. Whenever we went to visit, the landscape mostly populated with thorny acacia trees, the tall blue gums and the flaming Jacaranda outside her house served as a navigational bearing. Her fruit orchard was soon producing pawpaws and passion fruit – previously unheard of in Juja. During the passion fruit season, her visits to our house meant an abundance of fruit. It was from her that I first observed the, yet unproven, (pseudo)science of identifying male vs. female pawpaw seeds. Apparently, if you dangle a needle from the end of a thread just on top of, but not touching a pawpaw seed, the needle will be magnetically attracted to the seed if it’s male – or female, I forget exactly how this works. All the same, I have memories of my dad and I attempting to separate viable male vs. female pawpaw seeds under grandma’s keen tutelage.

Her attempts at animal husbandry were equally successful. She could turn a single ewe and ram into a worthy herd in no time. Sheep give birth about twice a year. We’d visit one year to witness her flock dwindle to 5 – courtesy of hyenas as the sheep were grazing, worms, or coughs – and return a year or two later to see a flock of almost 30, all reared from the original 5. We used to make fun of how lambs that were left behind as the rest of the herd went out to graze during the day, would follow her around the house and garden. She had Abel’s gift and was a veritable sheep whisperer.

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I’d travel to Juja in the company of my mother, younger sisters, and grand uncle and his family. Usually we’d use their cars – split between two convoys. Our first stop was often the newly opened Uchumi Hyper Supermarket. Over the years Uchumi Ngong Road has lost the prestige with which it was first opened. Back in the day, this was the height of middle class respectability. The red and white plastic shopping bags spoke volumes about a family’s ability to climb up the ladder. This was the spot to pick the (almost) mandatory groceries: packets of sugar, tea leaves, salt, cooking oil, maize and wheat flour, loaves of sliced bread, etc. On times when we’d make the journey without my grandma’s brother, my mom would hoist the package onto her back – the quintessential Kikuyu woman.

Using public transport to get to Juja was arduous. It meant a bus to town, then a number 237 van to Thika, though we’d actually alight at Juja/Muchatha. And yet that was just half the journey. At Muchatha we’d have to sit and wait until one of those fame-me-face-you trucks converted into passenger vans arrived, and got fully packed with people, goods, and often domestic animals. Kids such as myself and younger sisters, obviously didn’t need a sit so we’d stand in between rows of adults – lost in the dank, sweaty interior of the van. It was usually much better if the van was not covered with a tarpaulin sheet. That way I could stretch out and swing back and forth as the vehicle lurched in and out of potholes. But that also meant exposure to the midday savanna sun and dust. Often we’d alight at Juja Farm and embark on the last quarter of the journey by foot. This route often passed by the Harris farmhouse – a white family that had settled here ranching and practicing horticulture. With all these adventures, accompanying Baba Kamau to my grandma’s, his eldest sibling’s, house was always a lot more enjoyable. Often we’d get to grandma’s place by about midday; this gave us a couple of hours to prepare lunch – usually a couple of chickens or a goat if there were enough of us AND we’d informed grandma before hand so she could prep the barbecue. If we drove there, it was also more likely that we’d all head back home in the evening, often getting back to Ngong very late in the evening eager to forego dinner and jump straight into bed before school the next day.

Sometimes though, my sisters and I would be left behind – especially at the beginning of school holidays. We’d stay there for 2 to 3 weeks, until my mom came back to pick us up, or we’d head back home in the company of Njoro, my mom’s youngest brother. Staying in Juja for the holidays meant taking the animals out to graze in the morning. Sometimes I’d only have to get them to the herdsman and he’d keep them for the day before I picked them up in the evening. One school holiday I accompanied Wa Ngoiri, grandma’s herdsman, everyday. I remember having to do a lot of walking, and always coming back in the afternoon famished. Or I’d join other village boys and together we’d herd the animals, often under the supervision of an adult. Working in bands of boys, we’d get someone’s dogs and recruit them into a hunting party. I remember once capturing a baby antelope, courtesy of one of the dogs, killing it and taking half of it as my counterpart took home the other half.

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Sometimes Njoro would not only take us back home, he’d also visit Ngong at the beginning of vacation and take me back with him. Back then he was wild enough that my parents felt the need to warn him not to spend too much time in Nairobi’s movie halls before getting to Juja. He’d partly grown up in Maringo section of Nairobi – as a “born tao” (someone born in town) he was suave and cool in a way his village buddies could not comprehend. For instance, he could navigate the city’s traffic at a time when most of his Juja friends had only been to the city once or twice – if at all – mostly on day trips organized by the school.

One such trip from Ngong to Juja unraveled into much drama. We’d already made it to Nairobi CBD, embarked onto a 237 minibus, and we were just about to alight at Muchatha. As we standing up, and Njoro was maneuvering a bag of dried maize my mom had given him for grandma, he accidentally hit one of the window panes next to him and broke it. The bus conductor as well as the driver were up in arms. There was no way we could leave, they said, without having paid for the damages. Needless to say, we missed our Muchatha stop and kept on bickering with the bus operators all the way to the final stop at Thika. I think there was even mention of police station to force Njoro to hand over cash for the damages. I’m pretty sure he had some money on him, courtesy of my mom, but being the smooth operator that he believed himself to be, he had no intention of parting with it. The decision was finally made that I’d head back with the bus, get down at Muchatha, go see grandma about some money for the broken window and return with it. Meanwhile, Njoro plus all our luggage would be held ransom until I returned.

Disembarking from Muchatha, I caught the face-me-face-you truck and made it to Juja Farm. My twelve-year-old mind calculated that instead of walking all the way to grandma’s house it made more sense to go to Mr. Harris’s house, take money from him which he’d surely get back from grandma, and hence set right back on rescuing Njoro. I walked to the white farmhouse, raised on a platform above ground, and with a verandah all around it. I’d never been here before, and we’d not been previously introduced to each other. I knew of him based on what both grandma and Njoro talked about. Grandma would visit his house once in a while; and Njoro would eventually work on the family farm tending vegetables. I’m fascinated to think about what they’d have talked about – grandma and Mr. Harris. Language was certainly not an issue. Grandma’s English was impeccable, so much so that her Juja neighbors nicknamed her Mama Njoroge wa Githongo, i.e. Njoroge’s mother who also speaks English. That she could converse with a white man in his language, without any fear, must have endlessly astonished her neighbors.

For them, this was another reminder of how much Gathiri, or Nyina wa Njorogo, as most of them knew her, had attempted to break away from the female gender roles pre-assigned to her. If I remember correctly, I met Mr. Harris and 2 or 3 other family members. I introduced myself and explained what had happened. I underlined that grandma would get him his money back but that I needed it urgently, before Njoro ended up in prison. Mr. Harris indeed handed over KSHS 500. I can’t imagine what he’d have thought of the tale! I rushed back only to meet Njoro at Muchatha. He’d walked away by leaving my bag full of clothes with the driver, and made it home with the bag of maize. He was to return the next day to retrieve my clothes and compensate the bus operators for the broken window. There was nothing else to do but to get back onto another face-me and finally head to grandma’s house, minus my luggage. In the subsequent weeks, a never-ending twist of events resulted in me permanently separated from my luggage. Njoro went back a few times but never came back with the clothes. One pair of jeans had plastic gems embedded underneath the front waistband and I was quite fond of it. I hated having to part with it!

The rest of the vacation was thankfully uneventful. In addition to herding grandma’s cattle, goats, and sheep, I’d run errands to the village shop. When my cousins were around, grandma only entrusted me with  purchasing cigarettes for her. This was a big job for me; and I remember her asking me to bring them straight back to her without showing my cousins. It felt thrilling to be entrusted with such an important task. Eventually, however, smoking prematurely ended grandma’s life – a result of lung complications, most likely lung cancer.

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Years later, Gathiri would move in with us in the last months of her life. One day, grandma was out in the yard; she’d taken a walk outside the house, and was re-entering the house through the kitchen. Just a few meters from the door, she slipped, probably tripping on one of the many stones and pebbles that litter our yard. Weak, grandma fell face first. Sitting inside the house, I doubt I could have heard her frail voice from such a distance; on my way out the kitchen for an entirely different reason, I spotted grandma struggling to get off the ground and back on her feet. Her previously full bosom had now turned flat and emaciated; and she was hoarsely calling out to my mother, “Annie, Annie!”

 

Ode to the Wanderlust – Part III (Road Trip Edition)

(1) Riding a Cargo Truck

As any adventurous boy will have you know, the best spot to sit when riding a lorry is up on the roof. You sit amongst the cargo, balancing yourself with whatever is closest. As the truck dips in and out of pot holes and ruts on the road, you swing along, all the while hoping that nothing comes crushing down on you.

This is how I remember our moving trip from Gikambura to Em Bul Bul in June 1990. I don’t remember anything about the packing, but there certainly must have been some since the truck was full by the time it rolled out. Moving companies were unknown back then. You relied upon your friends and family to help you out. If you were really lucky, you got a bunch of people to work with you on loading the truck, and also accompany you to your final destination so they could assist you in the offloading. In return, you were expected to offer lunch.

From Gikambura to Kangawa, most of the road is paved; but there were several spots where you had to watch out for hanging branches eager to slap you across the face, or gouge your eyes out. The fun thing to do was see how long you could wait before you ducked out of harm’s way. The longer you waited before evading impending bodily harm the tougher and cooler you were. I mostly lost to my more daring age mates.

Unloading the truck is a pain in the neck, and trying to fit into the neighborhood is even worse. I have minimal tough guy skills in me, and the band of brothers whom we moved amongst immediately figured that out. There were 4 of them, and the youngest 2 were the most spoiled. Unlike myself, they could always rely on their elder siblings to back them up and rescue them out of any scuffle. I was all I had, unless I wished to commit social suicide by appealing to my parents, or even worse, my younger sisters.

K and T loved to torment me. There was a path that cut across their farm leading to our house. We all used it, but my presence on it irked them way out of proportion. To re-calibrate the balance of power in their favor, and to avenge all other trespassers whom they could do nothing about, they focused all their energy on me. Sometimes they’d  throw stones at me from the safety of their home. Those were the polite moments. When they felt more emboldened, they’d accost me on the path, and begin to interrogate me. I can’t recall the essence of the interrogations but like all bullies, I’m sure they weren’t lost for insults – real or perceived – that I had to atone for.

To this day, relations have never quite warmed between our two families. I suppose in many ways, we’ll always be the ‘settlers’ who occupy their land. Never mind that K’s and T’s parents were involved in the sale of their later brother’s land to us.

(2) Datsun KQW 047

To this day, there’s something extremely alluring about antique cars. I love the sense that these vehicles have enjoyed a full life before arriving in my own. But even more, I love the capacity to coax them back to health, repair them, mend them, and give them a new shine. If there’s ever a car I’d love to own it would have to be my grand uncle’s Datsun KQW 047. The thing was a dark cream/beige/yellow. I’m sure someone would claim it was brown. But brown says nothing of the promise that this vehicle held for me as a small boy.

It probably has something to do with how this very car delivered to me a pair of twin sisters, with my mom in tow from wherever she’d disappeared to for a couple of days. Mostly, however, my looks of awe at this Datsun have to do with the fact that we used it often on trips to visit my maternal grandmother in Juja.

(3) 5-Door Nissan Sunny

Nowadays hatch-back vehicles are all the craze, despite most families owning several cars and hence having no real need for the extra space. Back in my day, the cargo space offered by a 5-door Nissan Sunny was perfect for stashing the kids on a long road trip. Because of this, our first stop was always the Ngong Road Uchumi Hyper – after all you can’t go to Shagz without sugar, vegetable oil, tea leaves, salt, unga, etc. – and the groceries would be stashed into the back, alongside our skinny adolescent bodies.

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In my adult life I have continued to love the road trip adventure. Folks are always asking me why/how I can enjoy driving more than 6 hours. When I tell them of my trip, in a truck no less, from Miami to Durham, North Carolina, and then in a sedan to Nashville and on to Kentucky they just stare back. They shake their head in that you’re-mad kinda way. But the truth that I truly enjoy the open road. I’ve driven out in Aussie from Adelaide, back towards Victoria (unknowingly), only to end up in the most fascinating small towns, farmland and abandoned homes. The American South was great for an autumn road trip. I started off in Indianapolis, non-stop to Nashville, and on to Birmingham. From there I criss-crossed Montgomery, Selma, Tuscaloosa, Jacksonville, Mississippi, Little Rock, Arkansas and on to Memphis, Tennessee.