Whenever I sit down to write a piece, whatever it is that crosses my mind I’ll do it longhand. I like writing things longhand. I find it that a computer depicts my sketchy thoughts as tidy when It’s clearly the opposite. If you chance to find my rough sketches of my handwritten half-baked stories you’ll most certainly concur that they lack the same allure as any neat typewritten work. They say a picture is worth a thousand words. This simply imputes the lucid attribute of photos to convey complex and multiple ideas with accurate clarity, leaving lasting impressions. Photos have the expediency to elicit emotions. Words afford the writer the same opportunity but not the same as that a photographer has. This then begs the question what is the relevance of writers-like me- in a modern photography epoch? I mean, the pixel has redefined storytelling to what we know it today. It’s a matter of one click and the world could change beyond recognition. Take for instance the George Floyd case where it took just a nine-minute video clip and a nation fractured. Tearing further the fissures of division that had existed before, in this delicate relationship between two races. In my honest opinion capturing that moment is beyond my skill as a writer, I mean what more could be said? The clip obviously left nothing unsaid. Look at the internet its cracking as hell –well I copied that- , I mean information is accessible at the touch of a button accessible even to the remotest and forgotten corners of the world. The Floyd case is but a constant reminder that no amount of civilization can problems like bigotry, inequality, injustice, inequity and unfairness and that in whichever corner of planet Earth you are today inequity is still a thorn in the flesh and that it manifests itself in varying shades and lump sums depending on circumstance.
Whereas in Africa we decry of our tribal divide the west decrys the divide between the left and the right –or as they call it today between the left and Trumpism- in laymans terms, between liberals and conservatives. The difference between the former and the latter discourse being one is based on ideology whereas the other is based on bigotry, Sorry for being this blatantly honest. Again the ball is in your court to judge which of the two discourses is a little bit sensible. In America they talk about racism and how it has left others feeling like outsiders looking inside, on this however, I must confess of my inexperience and I stand to be corrected but common sense will tell you there ought to be no debate on issues such as this in a modern world in a first world country. I lack the familiarity and authenticity on such an issue and I can’t purport to know better. I’m not American, never been there anyway. In Africa it’s much the same, we talk about corruption and how it has influenced a vicious circle of poverty. How the privileged have rigged the deserving but poor out of the system and that in Africa especially in Kenya it’s not what you know but who you know that matters.
I watch a lot of international news. So on a typical day I’ll try my best to catch the news at the top of any hour given that most international news stations provide 24-hour coverage. The headlines have become all too familiar. The Yemen correspondent is probably reporting the long drawn conflict that has brought a nation to its knees, how the bombs of rebel groups have marked the streets with eerie precision wrecking infrastructure and destroying the social fabric. The Saudi Arabia correspondent will report about human rights abuses. Not much negativity is reported about the west and Europe other than trade wars with the east and the conflicting tenets of communism and capitalism. Then there is the African correspondent who will obviously report about famine, the Ebola outbreak, the malaria outbreak or even war and insurgency –as long as they depict our motherland as a pandemic and conflict stricken continent-. I have no qualms with the way international media cover Africa but why do they only tell one story about this continent. Why depict it as a continent of catastrophes of course that is true but aren’t there positive ones such as the one of Peter Tabichi who received the 2019 global teacher award for dedicating his salary to help poor kids. But whichever the headline there are indeed parallels that emerge, one of them being the universality of the human story. That indeed, we share basic human principles and each and every human is fragile by virtue of being human. That the pain that fuels protests against racism in America is the same driving force for protests against corruption in Africa. All in all they all aim towards rational and just ends. We all crave principles such as justice and equity. But, it all ends with the headlines. No one bothers to look beyond the headlines. We brush it with the clique It’s just another headline.
Beyond the catchy, alluring and sometimes disturbing headlines, there is more than what meets the eye. Some of these headlines have become all too familiar that we no longer ponder upon their implications. We often forget that we have stakes in each other. We only call out impunity when it affects us. The chameleon becomes a pet when it camouflages and looks like us and that is why corruption is CORRUPTION when we don’t receive its spoils. The word nepotism sounds ugly yet the clique connnections muhimu has become our favorite.
Today unlike any other day a headline has informed my routine. An exposé in yesterday’s bulletin, on how children in the slums of Githurai choose to forgo school and join gangs left me wondering of how thin the line between despair and untrammeled fury, is for these kids. It prompted my friends and I to organize a workshop to get to understand them. It’s a Monday morning, I hate Monday mornings because they are particularly notorious. The hustle from the moment I step out of my room; First to catch a matatu before it’s six-the notoriety of Thika road cannot allow me to sleep even a minute extra-. So today like any other I’m in the back seat of a Neo Kenya matatu. I’m seated at the back, by the window. I’m leaning my head against the window. I’m in a reverie, lost in my thoughts but I’m occasionally brought back to existence by the constant banging of the matatu by the touts but I’m used to it anyway. Their sheer determination and the lengths they can go to get one customer on board still baffles me. I straighten up and watch as two touts shove and yank a lady back and forth heedless to her calls to let go of her. She’s wearing stiletto heels, this I can tell from the click-clack sounds I hear as if she’s making a quick procession to nowhere in particular. I can only imagine the stress on her heels. The scuffle is a brief one and the most persistent bidder walks away with the prize.
The matatu roars to life and the journey begins. We come to a stop, I crane my neck and it’s the all familiar bumper to bumper traffic characteristic of Thika road. We are at a junction. From my vantage position, I get to look outside. I get a prospective view of Nairobi city. The city’s skyline is changing, new high-rise structures being erected at any little available space, its skyscrapers nothing but a vista of civilization. But against the backdrop of this civilization is the depressing sight of the Githurai slums and that’s around where I am right now. And just a stone throw away is the posh Muthaiga neighborhood. From my vantage position I can contrast these worlds, that of the rich, that of the poor and the offices where these two worlds reconcile. The affluent Muthaiga neighborhoods are landmarked with sprawling houses behind iron gates. They are fenced and behind these walls are lush green lawns. The Githurai slums are the exact opposite. Crammed ramshackles, leaning against each other. There are no sidewalks just muddy pathways. Indeed the contrast between these two worlds of want and of plenty is lucid. This contrasting sight leaves me mulling over capitalism, it’s tenets, that inspire class struggle further widening the gulf between the rich and the poor. Was Karl Max right? I wonder, but I know too well this is not a conversation I’d like to have with myself. Especially, on a Monday morning. What about revolutionaries like Che Guevara who fought for the cause of communism unto death. Perhaps communism could have done better. I honestly have no idea. To me these were honest men pursuing a bona fide cause. Capitalism or communism I can’t for sure measure the two on the same scale but if you insist on knowing where I stand then I’m a little bit inclined towards communism. My choice being informed by a long footnote in a book I read that went ‘the very foundation of the idea of communism is from everyone according to his ability and to everyone according to his needs.’
From my window seat I can see a city in constant conversation. The hustle and bustle of this city is palpable. Roadside vendors braving the oppressive heat from the sun to sell their merchandise, hawkers and peddlers in quick processions to find customers and to avoid the hawk eyed kanjo, all these alongside the people in suits working in offices, all relentlessly pursuing a cause all jostling to be heard, all ready to tell their stories. I lurch forward suddenly, hitting the seat in front of me with my forehead, these has the effect of jolting me from my reverie. I’ve always been cognizant of this inconvenience yet anytime I sit in a matatu I’ll always fall asleep. I look at my phone. It’s exactly 8:30 pm. I’m already late for my 8 am class. I won’t make it. I decide to detour and alight in Githurai. I change my plans and instead decide to join my friends for the workshop. It’s my first time actually. I don’t know the exact place so I decide I’ll use google maps, but at this instant I remember a meme that went “Githu ukitoa phone kutumia google maps wewe na simu mnapotea pamoja”. I smile at his thought but not until I notice a certain lady stealing glances in my direction. I don’t really doubt the veracity of this meme but given our meme culture I dismiss the thought. It’s a sea of people here and the air smells foul. I’ve seen this place. Yes, I’ve always seen it from my window seat of course. On mornings or even evenings, when a tinge of grey has fallen over this city. Especially on those evenings when I’m running late from an evening class thanks to an insensitive lecturer who drives a brand new white Toyota land cruiser who seems clueless of the commuting struggles we experience. On these evenings as I commute back to where I stay, the only memory I have is that of iron sheet structures morphed into running silhouettes.
Where I’m standing I’m honestly disoriented to say the least. To avoid being prey to the chokoras who won’t hesitate at the slightest opportunity to exploit any confused element, I brisk my pace towards a nearby kiosk. That’s a good life hack by the way if you end up confused on these streets, especially in Nairobi and especially in Githurai, anyway I order a Fanta baridi. Yes If you are a Kenyan, born at the beginning of this century then you must be accustomed to the clique burudika na Fanta from a famous Paul Wainaina song. The nchi ya kitu kidogo one. From where I’m seated I can feel the fighting spirit. I observe as a scrawny man relentlessly attempts to pull down the handle of a mkokoteni so he can push it’s load upward to use own it’s weight to lurch it forward, the struggle is brief and the contents of the mkokoteni give in to his persistence. Touts on the other hand are in frantic quick processions shouting their lungs out trying to get customers making the entire scene a hullabaloo. It’s a cacophony of boisterous activities of hustlers going head on with life trying to change a narrative or even write it in a language they best understand. Everybody seems sort of engrossed in his own world, everyone here goes by their own rules and if you are not keen the mkokoteni guy will splash you with muddy water. This place is really untidy with litter spattered everywhere the smells drifting through my nose range from stale to savory, something in between these two I can’t tell for sure because adjacent to a sort of makeshift dumpsite is a msee wa maayai vending both boiled eggs and smokies. He seems oblivious of the mess around him and so are his customers. I slowly rise up to ask msee wa mayai to gonga mbili for me only to feel a gentle tap on my shoulder. I cast a furtive glance over my shoulder the follow the direction the hand goes and alaaaas!!! my team is already here. Kevin my long-time ally and one who I’ve always known as a very precise character sets the precedent, quick fist bumps and we start Wading our way through the sea of people.
…to be continued