Focus: Kenya fiction, and view (nonfiction).
THE ROAD TO ELDORET
The scene from his hotel room screen in Nakuru still feels his mind. Let’s call him Mwangi. He’s from Muranga, he still drives the Datsun 120 Y that he bought in 1972 when he was a twenty two year old boy, and he’s got a family in the outskirts of Eldoret where his wife runs the family farm (cows and wheat) that he bought in 1982 from a white MAN fleeing the coup that “never happened,” as he is fond of saying, “so I got the farm cheap.”
That was 1982. Mwangi was a sharp hustler from Muranga, now he’s grown into an old-ish respectable farmer, 57 years in age, a bit of a sage and scrooge who in spite of his Shs. 3 million in cash in Equity Bank (savings, he takes no loans) still drives a Datsun 120 Y, and why, till last night, he had never stayed at a hotel. He did, now in the fiery first days of 2008, at a place called Midlands Hotel because he has heard the land is no longer safe.
There was a television set in the hotel room with one of those fancy new satellites that one finds everywhere these days, even in tiny little bars in Muranga where the boys wear foolish ‘Manchester United’ and ‘Arsenal’ T-shirts, like silly English blokes; and speak with animation of ‘van Pussy Cats’ and ‘Lonaldo.’ In his days, this excitement was exclusively reserved for the girls – who was “digging Muthoni’s mo-go-do” or Njeri’s garden.
Mwangi fell asleep drinking White Caps, which he has drunk from 1975, in his fancy little hotel room … and dreamt of the peaks of Mount Kenya.
When he woke up, that funny American station called Cable News Network (the only cables Mwangi knows so far are the troublesome ones that disconnect the carburetor in his 120 Y) was showing a burnt church, with fifty dead, somewhere in Eldoret.
‘Elsewhere.’ That’s how Mwangi always envisions those pictures – burnt churches in Rwanda, skeletons on the hard, sandy faces of Darfur, long endless ant-like lines of refugees in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and those other unpleasant images from Inside Africa that Western media seems so very enamored of.
But the burnt church was in Kenya‘s Rift Valley. The fifty or five dozen dead were Kenyans of a certain community, there were no ‘Interhamwes’ or ‘janjaweeds’ or other exotically named murderers in this mix, it was Kenyan jinns …
And Mwangi was on his feet, and out of the hotel, before one could say the words “balkanization” or “ethnic tension” – and now, with the sun just coming up over the horizon, Mwangi is on his way to Eldoret to get his family, and take them back to the safety of his small house in Muranga.
In the blur of the blue-purplish-golden light of dawn road ahead, Mwangi notices what he thinks is road-side bush and bracken. At first. Bushes do not grow on tar-macadam roads, bwana!
As he gets closer, he notices that the obstacles are actually stones – little rocks that prop up bushes, like ominous flowers in menacing vases. Mwangi does not stop to wonder why this is so, why anyone in their right mind would bother with this weird fauna-and-floral arrangement, in the middle of a road to nowhere.
Well, not ‘nowhere’ exactly – Eldoret!
Like the practical man, and farmer, that he is, Mr. Mwangi, 57, gets out of his old blue Datsun 120 Y, look sup to the sky, then gets to work – pulling at the bracken to clear the road.
And from behind the tall grass on either side of the road, columns of men emerge … somewhere between ten and twenty men. Some are tall, some are short, some are rugged, some wear Western T-shirts with improbable messages like “Rainnkonnen Rules,”- and “Vote for Al Gore-2000!” They look like refugees from a beer budget movie called Old Sierra Leone. And in their hands, Mr. Mwangi notes, they carry elongated shadows.
No, not shadows! It is the silhouettes of machetes, and suddenly Mr. Mwangi’s insides turn to maji. Now he can see the faces of some of the men, hate-contorted contours that appraise him savagely.
“Haka hakana pesa,” (this one has no money) one of the men, dark brown snaggle – toothed snarls, and the mob looks at his old blue Datsun 120 Y, and laughs. The laughs aren’t merry. They are blood-sodden, “Niko na chapa,” (I have dough) Mr. M hears himself mutter in a strange voice. “Twende ATM ya Equity …” (let us go to the Equity ATM)…he hopes they are highway robbers.
“Hapana!” (No!) one of the men screams, raising his panga to the sun, “Toa I.D!” (remove your Identity card). With trembling fingers, Mr.Mwangi ‘chomoas’ his Identity Card.
In Kenya, the I.D.s not only come with your name and date of birth, but also your place of ethnic origin, or tribe. They were an invention of the British Colonialists to prevent Kenyans from slipping away from their tribal reserves (concentration encampments) at the height of the Mau Mau rebellion against British rule, from 1952 -to- 1955.
Mr Mwangi’s I.D. falls to the ground. Another man, in tattered red and white shirt, snatches it up, dirty nails scraping the grimy road to Eldoret. “Huyu ni mmoja wao waliiba kura,” (this is one of those who stole our votes), the man yells, and his companions close in on Mr. Mwangi, who realizes he has wet himself for the first time since 1955, when he was just five.
Elongated shadows rise and fall in the sun.
The road to Eldoret is no El Dorado! In the middle of the murderous commotion, no-one notices when the driver’s side of the door of the 120 Y is slammed shut in the movement of the mayhem, or the exact moment that Mr. Mwangi becomes 1950 – 2008, R.I.P. The short rains are over. January will be hot and dry. And the rivers in Kenya, for once, will run red and riot.
I finished writing the above story on Friday, the fourth of January, 2008. The day after everything had happened. And, yes, it is ‘a story based on real life.’ People on their way to Kenya’s Rift Valley (where most of the killings were at, although the murders were truly of a national character) to rescue their families were stopped by death squads. And if they came from the ‘wrong’ community (read Agikuyu), they were hacked to death on the spot. Unless, of course, they were female … those were first gang raped, then hacked to death, with machetes.
So the above story is “based on actual events.” Yes, that’s better than ‘real life.’ Because the days preceding the Friday that I wrote ‘The Road to Eldoret’ were anything but real. Everything seemed surreal. Everything was surreal. It wasn’t as if we were living in the politically stable, ethnically united and mildly prospering Kenya I, and millions of others, have always taken for granted.
It was as if a daemonic Salvador Dali had, overnight, painted Kenya over in dark and crimson hues and then inserted us all into the canvass of his bizarre expressionism …
On the day I finished writing ‘The Road to Eldoret,’ I celebrated – my survival, not the completion of that little piece – by drinking several glasses of a Chilean wine called ‘Frontera’ in the front-yard of a neighbour’s house with his mongrel of a dog warily watching me. Even the canines of Kenya knew something was a – paw.
“I imagine a country whose natural frontiers surround a great wine. Think of Chile. Chilean vineyards are protected to the north by the most arid desert on earth, to the south by huge ice-fields, to the west by the expanse of the Pacific Ocean and to the east the majestic snow-capped Andes. ‘Frontera’, Chile in a glass.” So said the front of the Frontera box. I took a sip of the wine, and thought, “if it’s true that this is Chile in a glass, then Chile is dirt cheap.”
If one were to make a wine called Nairobi, which is the capital city of Kenya, and which sits smack-bang in the middle of the country (as all serious capitals should), then the Nairobi wine box may well read: “Nairobi, to the north-east has the great deserts that lead to Somalia and Ethiopia, to the south-east lies the port of Mombasa, the gateway to the majestic Indian Ocean with its sun, fun, white sands, beach hotels (and Lamu, frozen in the sea in 1592, with its donkeys and diamonds-in-the-night-sea), to the south-west the game ranges of the Savannah that teem with wildlife – lions, zebra, antelopes, leopards, rhinos, buffaloes, giraffes, hippopotammi-and that are the heart of safari country; and finally the North West where the Great Rift – with its myriad mountain-ranges, deep valleys and dozens of lakes and geysers lie. This is Kenya.”
And you bet your Nairobi wine would taste mighty fine! Frontera, on the other hand, red and acrid, just reminded me of the blood spilling in our country on that aftermath arid Friday. Kenya will have been independent from the British for forty five years this year. Yet, at the turn of the 2007/2008 New Year, we almost went to the dogs (of war), to African hell (in a hand-basket) Nay, make that in a ballot box. And a deficient ballot box at that! You want to talk about hanging Chads in Florida 2000? Well, we had hangings (and lynching, and beatings, and burnings, and and and …) in Kenya.
Africa has always seemed a little apocalyptical to the rest of the world. “The Dark Continent.” The Economist had a most infamous headline once, that both stank and rankled at our hearts- “The Hopeless Continent.” Yes, write us off, “and will you, Melissa, kindly throw Africa out with the garbage, please?”
The images from the continent are relentless – the late great Mo Amin’s stark black-and-white photographs of emaciated, skeletal faces and ribs in Ethiopia so prominent they deserve a distinguished position in some corrupt government office in Africa. The squalor of the slums (every Western celebrity who comes to Kenya inevitably visits the Kibera slums, one of Africa’s largest with a million inhabitants, second only to Soweto, South Africa, although I hear Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, takes the shit-cake as far as slums go).
It’s a slam-dunk.
Africa is where all the funk happens … the wars from which funky films (Lord of War, Nicholas Cage, comes to mind), the addictive fascination with African starvation, the terrible glamour of our tragedies, like Rwanda, the nausea of putrid corruption.
All bad things, AIDS included, begin – (but do not necessarily end) in Africa…
And, over the course of December 27th, 2007 to January 3rd; 2008, I was almost a witness to history. No, I was actually a witness … to almost – history. History here being Kenya’s first ‘proper’ genocide, disregarding the mini-ethnic cleansings of Molo, 1992, and Likoni, 1997, which even we in the media dismissed as “tribal clashes.”
Why? That is another story.
Let us just say that when “ethnic cleansing” happens in Africa, it is so fast as to almost defy the human eye … and the CNN camera lenses. Tribes in Africa are kiln-wood, soaked in the paraffin of historical animosity, just waiting for someone to strike the acrimonious match and ignite the country in an inferno of tribal warfare from which there is no return … only escape to other near, or lands far off.
In our case, the person who ‘lit the ignition’ was none other than our president Emilio Mwai Kibaki, Economist Extraordinaire, who was up for re-election or rejection on the dying days of December, 2007. And the story I will tell you next, written from the first person perspective, is of the ‘8 Days’ that Kenya stood on the very brink, the precipice, of ‘Rwandanisation.’
THE BRINKIPICE OF GENOCIDE
DAY 1: Thursday, the 27th of December, 2007. Voting Day
I wake up at five o’clock sharp. Not of my own volition but on volition of my Nokia cell-phone. There’s a Norwegian lady in it who goes: “Tut-tut, it’s time to wake up, tut-tut, it’s time to wake up,” over and over again … until you throw the cell-phone against the wall (an expensive form of venting) or are driven up the wall … and wake up.
I live on the first floor of a block of flats (Apartments, in American – speak) in an area of Nairobi – (a city of three point three million residents) – called Nairobi West. My bedroom, where I sleep (of course) faces the West, but my shower-room’s glazed glass windows face East – which means as I shower in lukewarm water on this most important of days – the sun comes in through the translucent glass panes in fragments of red … a crimson orb shattered into red rubies … like droplets of … blood.
Nairobi lies very close to the equator. We are in the middle of the world, literally. Which means the sunrises and sun-sets are not gradual as they are in other parts of the earth which have seasons. In St. Petersburg, Russia, for instance – which I have regularly visited as an SLS (Summer Literary Seminars) participant, the days seem to go on forever during St. Petersburg’s brilliant white nights …
Here, in Nairobi, near the equator, days and nights fall like curtains. And our dramas, especially the political ones, are as ruthlessly sudden. At least on the surface.
I dress optimistically on this day that me, and ten million other Kenyans, will choose to let President Mwai Kibaki run the country for another 5 years, or choose Opposition enigma Raila Odinga as the fourth president of our Republic. I dress national – a cap that says “Proudly Kenyan,” a T-shirt that is Maasai (everything Maasai is presumed to be Kenyan, thanks to the white obsession with these ‘noble savages,’), Swahili sandals and … Levis. Bas!
The problem is that President Kibaki is a Kikuyu, and Raila is a Luo – Kenya’s largest and second largest tribes, at seven and five million respectively. The Kikuyus are agrarian Bantus, a land-owning and farming tribe smack-bang in the middle of Kenya. Okay, that’s Nairobi! But they are the rural area that is right next to the cosmopolitan city of Nairobi. Far off to the north-west are the populous Luos, lakeside Nilotes who rely on Lake Victoria (yes, it is still named after that British Queen, who has been 108 years dead, courtesy of our colonizers … the lake’s name, that is, not her demise. Queen Victoria died of natural causes. What could be more natural than “being the Queen of the English will be the death of me?”) for sustenance.
Picture a primary school whose walls are white and blue and oblong-ular. Picture a cold African morning with little birds chirping on trees, small fish gliding inside a nearby river, an imam chanting prayers in a mosque hidden behind trees in the distance, and a large mugumo tree that is being eaten by a tribe of determined termites, that chew on it like creatures, demented. Under this mugumo tree in Kongoni Primary School in Nairobi West is a ballot box, an armed police-man (rickety rifle from World War II, Burma), two polling agents and a returning officer. This is where I’ll vote, having crossed a bridge above a dirty little stream to get here. The apartment complex I live in over-looks this stream. The realtor advertised as ‘scenic’ in the papers. He was Kikuyu, and the Kikuyu are seen as the ‘Jews’ of Kenya for their moneymaking abilities and entrepreneurship skills…
President Kibaki, when he was Vice-President of the country in a dictatorial political party called KANU in 1990, once said removing KANU from power “is like trying to cut down a mugumo tree with a razor blade.”
Twelve years later, with his now (2007) chief rival for the presidency Raila Odinga campaigning for him, then (and whom one Concordia professor Mikhail Iossel coincidentally met in a Nairobi Hotel, and ordered a $200 bottle of champagne for, from one comrade to a revolutionary other) Kibaki did bring KANU down in a massive landslide victory in 2002.
Needless to say, Mzee Kibaki had long before dumped KANU or had KANU dumped him? Picture, on this cool morning of December 27, 2007, a long queue of Kenyans, patiently waiting their turn to vote, impassive faces becoming animated as they engage in friendly last minute banter as Kenyan are wont to do. (We are known, across the world, as a very friendly people).
The voting process, itself, is a relatively swift affair. Especially for me, who, with my press card, is allowed to jump the queue. I am both amused and bemused. What am I supposed to do? Report that while I voted to retain my M.P., Raila Odinga, as representative of Langata (the Nairobi West area falls in this constituency), I gave a thumbs up to his presidential rival, Emilio Mwai Kibaki? Will my solitary choices make the mid-day news? I have a relatively good reason to be in a rush.
My younger brother, Ben, is in hospital – following a traumatizing beating in a small town north of Nairobi called Ngong after he voiced his support for Kibaki in Kalenjin country (the ‘Kaleos,’ as we call them, are allies of the Luo).
His antagonists, braced with knuckle-dusters (ok, dog chains used to leash small-town canines) unleashed their fury, broke his jaws, smashed his chin to ‘chintereens,’ broke his nose and left him unconscious on a dark road to be crushed to death by a motor vehicle, so that the whole murderous incident may look like a normal road accident! ‘Drunk run Down, in Ngong Town.’ Unluckily, or luckily, it is a motor-cyclist who runs into my kid-brother, Benjamin. The front-wheel of his bike side-swipes Ben’s head, slightly fracturing his skull (a hair-line fracture, no pun intended).
The fact that Benjamin survived this incident that happened three weeks ago – (see, political passions were already dangerously inflamed) – just goes to prove something I’ve always suspected … our family is extremely thick – skulled, if a little thin-skinned. Benjy has some news to report.
On Christmas Day, President Kibaki and his wife Lucy – whom Kenyans call ‘Ka-Roo-say,’ visited the maternity wing of the hospital (Benjy is in a private room, in the private wing of the Kenyatta National Hospital, with massive maxillo – facial injuries. The room, alone, costs $500 a week. It is not going to be a merry Christmas for us, no sire).
But Benjy is merry with mirth-“All fifteen of the male children born on Christmas were christened Emilio Mwai Kibaki, after the President and the twelve girls born on the same day, Lucy, after his wife. Did you vote?”
“Yes” I tell my younger brother. “For Ka-Roo-say! Did you? I hear the Electoral Commission of Kenya (ECK) were bringing ballot boxes to hospital so in-patients can vote.”
Benjy looks both startled and hopeful.
“I’m pulling your leg, kid,” I say.
I stay the afternoon with him.
Later, at sunset, I return to my flat, a small bottle of brandy in my hand. I sit at my table and begin writing a short story on the “Interrogation and Death of Field Marshall Dedan Kimathi!”