When the Nakumatts Close – by Wambui Mwangi

Focus: Kenya view.

When the Nakumatts close, you know there is trouble.  Yesterday I was sitting in a Java, sipping some curiously-named drink and doing a melanin-graded assessment of everybody else in the Java.  There we all were, my nice safe middle-class Nairobi, sitting under maroon umbrellas  and admiring our own urban casual chic, dark black and sinous–really, she was the  most fantastically beautiful woman; she looked like an advertisement for blackness,  to creamy white and elegant-this one was wearing more beads than the average Maasai, and I wanted her shoes, badly.  It was good to lust for shoes, instead of retribution, instead of dreaming up new circles of Dante’s Hell for the people who have cost us our hopes, who are going to keep the grave-diggers busy.  As an act of charity, hospitals are allowing grieving people to pick up the dead bodies of their loved ones for free.  Free death, and free storage of bodies.

At Java, I could escape for a moment and just look at all of us:  Kenyan, and carefully cosmopolitan.  One of my favourite occupations is watching white Kenyans  strenuously differentiate themselves from mere tourists.  They mostly won’t even look at them. On the other hand, those tables that fail to have at least two different skin colours at them risk seeming provincial, and utterly uncool. The real chic is in mixing your coffees and your skins with varying degrees of milk and whiteness.  We Kenyans these days are performing multi-culturalism as if we invented it, which in fact we probably did.  We’re even into blue glass, these days.  We’ve really got it so good, what with our new fashions and affordable cars and reasonable housing-cybercafés two paces away, at most, this is pretty much the good life we have here, eh?  And then the Nakumatt closed.

The Nakumatt closed, frustrating our twenty-four hour shopping expectations, because the man sworn in as president, Mwai Kibaki, had declared a demi-cabinet, straight up, no ice on the side, twist of lemon and a bit of salt on the wound; that’ll do nicely, thank you. The calls from Kisumu found their echoes in Kibera;  the young men dragged their tear-gassed butts back on to the street, and middle-class Nairobi could not shop.  It was really extremely inconvenient.  Due to the sudden intervention of politics into my plans, I had to wait until the next day to buy my Pepto-Bismol and a bar of chocolate.  I spent the night with a stomach ache.  Meanwhile, my fellow citizens died some more. In Kiambu, those who are burdened with non-Kikuyuness move to the police stations and schools at night, for safety.  Small children are learning their ethnic affiliations all of a sudden, in fear and loathing; this is not a lesson they will forget. It is the thing that killed their mother and their father; how will they ever forget?  Elsewhere, Kikuyus are dying for “their” president. I feel my fury harden.  

There are seven presidents in Kenya now.  There are four former presidents of African countries (Mozambique, Tanzania, Zambia and Botswana) who have gone to Eldoret to see the results of our meltdown for themselves; there’s one, Kuoffuor, from Ghana who is seeming ambiguously-invited and differentially wanted and we’re apparently not even sure whether he is a mediator who can mediate.  The first thing he will have to mediate is the mediation issue.  Perhaps after that we can go back to shopping at midnight if we feel like it.  This, in addition to our less-than-beloved Moi, who in recent years morphed into an elder statesman and an apostle of peace right in front of our astonished eyes.   I wonder if he’s gloomy or gleeful as he rasps out an “I told you so” from his new skull-looking face.  He is already a carving, a relic; he has somehow managed a transmogrification into his own sculpture.  A walking myth, unrepentant and unbowed. He makes a better looking piece of art than those gargoyles he had put up all over the place.  I wonder about authoritarian art-is there a market for it?  We could call it Brutism and sell it and pay for food for our people, perhaps.  On television, there is a near-riot for relief food.  In Kenya. My heart is breaking – I am a walking splinter of rage.

There is also Kibaki, who was swept to power in 2002 in love and acclamation, in triumph, in hope and ululation.  We were so naive, in those days, those innocent hopeful days.  He’s currently the most famous squatter in the world, having liked his accommodations so much, he just got up and…stayed.

I think perhaps he lives on a different planet from the rest of us.  Where he lives, he is presiding over a democratic country full of peace-loving and calm people who lined up for hours to vote him in for a second term in an amazing landslide and who are panting with enthusiasm to hear him tell us about his new cabinet, seeing as everything else is so lovely and hunky-dory at the moment.  In Kibakistan,  hakuna matata.  It is obviously a large tourist resort, there, where he is president of-full of shiny happy people holding hands and dancing for wealthy white strangers. In this alternative reality inhabited by our leaders, whose serenity is second to none, we are just about to go on with our business of becoming an African Tiger; all systems go, let the work continue, as you were, assume positions and stations, and go!  It sounds nice there, where this man is president of, wherever that is.  

I do not live there. 

We cannot possibly be inhabiting the same latitudes and longitudes and breathing the same air-where I live is full of frightened and traumatised people, and where this man lives is…somewhere else.  He is not here.

They do not live here, he and his friends; they have not smelled the tyres burning or seen the shell that was Ukwala Supermarket in Kisumu.  I bought a pair of pliers in that supermarket, on the 24 of December, 2007.  I have the pliers still – we used them as a make-shift window-crank for the left-hand passenger-door on our brave little car, Purple Perpetua, who took us safely though every obstacle and rough spot until we met The Hate.  It is not true that you need a four-wheel drive vehicle to travel around Kenya; Perpetua got through everything, every crevice and crack and swimming-pool size trench in the road to Western Kenya and Nyanza, so obviously she was all but skipping and trilling as she traversed the skating-smooth ribbons of tarmac that are in the Central Province.  Until the country exploded.  That stopped Purple Perpetua in her tracks, quite literally: there was no petrol.  It stopped us as well, but only to the extent that we were forced to stare at luscious gardens by the pool-side for two whole days, whilst grudgingly eating delicious meals.  I think we might have been visiting the place where that man is president of, where he lives with his friends, and where adoring crowds buoy up his every word with gladness and joy. It is surreal now.  My memory is not working properly. Two weeks ago feels like another lifetime, and every day is separated from the last by a sense of surprise.  The sun is still shining the way it used to-how can it? I cannot remember if it was this hot before elections.  

Were we all dreaming, in 2002?  Even last November seems fictional to me, so I cannot really tell whether we were all just high on ourselves in 2002, when we were dreaming and cheering Kibaki on – in those days before the Betrayal. We might have been momentarily body-snatched by optimistic aliens, because we certainly are not cheering or dreaming now.  I hate them all for taking away that dream-  I want the aliens back.  E.T. call home. Please call home. Those slogans we chanted to and for ourselves back then; we meant them – we’re such a wonderfully sentimental people about ourselves, sometimes.  We go around quoting the national anthem to each other these days, as if we’ve all just learned it anew, as if it was written by Shakespeare, as if we are the first to discover its profound wisdom and can’t wait to pass it on. As if the person we are telling it to doesn’t know it already, has never heard it before – we insist on telling it over.  It is a prayer and a curse.  “O God of All Creation, Bless this Our Land and Nation, Justice Be Our Shield and Defender” – that line is almost funny, in these times.

I met a friend under those maroon umbrellas; someone I hadn’t seen for years.  Those cafe’s are extremely productive for those kinds of meetings; you can plan on meeting unplanned-for people you know at a Nairobi Java.  By “people” I do not mean the “watus”; those who actually work in the supermarkets and coffee houses, in the hospitals, office buildings and hotels but have to go back every night to madness and sadness and fear, where poor people in Nairobi live.  One doesn’t “meet” those people, one merely overlooks them, until they are absent and then mostly it is because the dust starts to accumulate, and we remember that we have no staff.  Those people dying have never seen the inside of the parliament, unless they were there to clean it.  Those people dying will not, as Moi once pithily put it, have more ugali in their sufurias (were they alive to dream of eating it) just because ‘their’ man is president.  They’ll be as poor as they’ve always been, unless they luck out and get dead, instead.  The dead have simpler desires.

In any case, we have seven presidents here now, which should cover any presidential eventuality that arises. We’re locked and loaded, presidentially speaking.  Unless, of course, one gets picky and wants a Kenyan president who has been democratically elected – that might be a little difficult at the moment.  We however have a very nice line in retirees, would madam be interested in one of those, instead? We also have a president-in-waiting, to round out the numbers, and for sophisticated tastes, we have a man who campaigned for the vice-presidency in the most blatant fashion possible, and actually got the job.  What’s that, 81/2?  One more, and we can make the movie.

I feel the need for my Java session-it is a kind of meditation. We are such a nice fantasy, there. My dreams have shrunk to the size of maroon umbrellas. “ May we dwell in Liberty, Peace and Unity…”. I’m doing it myself, now. I’ll be fine as long as the Nakumatts stay open.



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