A few weeks ago, a friend of mine randomly suggested something to me just after we’d passed a roadside grill on our way to Kawangware Market.
Tukule ulimi. Let’s eat tongue.
I obliged, both of us turning back to the spot where chunks of meat of different shapes and sizes were sizzling on an oily black grill, the tongue among them, sending smoke upwards, dripping juice. . . let me stop there. We ate the tongue and proceeded to the market. There we sat on a bench next to a chipo guy frying potato chips and crisps, his pan tilted at an angle to fit on the jiko. This we wanted a taste of. As we waited to be served, I suddenly became self-conscious.
“Do I eat too much?”
It’s well over a decade since my primary school peers and I walked to a neighbouring village to listen to the District Officer’s address on the occasion of a national holiday. The hot equatorial afternoon would present a challenge to the day’s main task – the D.O’s speech, and his token to students in the division. As we waited for the D.O. An elderly Luyia man stood up to address the crowd, proceeding to say something spiteful about my village. I remember the emotion in his words. It was strange. It felt like he had a problem with that part of the location I was from, or the fact that people from there were present. He said, “I do not like the name Nyang’ori, I do not like the name Nyang’ori because back when we were children the Luos used to refer to people from that side of our location as Jokuo Nyang’ori.”
At that time, I was still a pupil in primary school, in my final year. I had strong loyalties but could not do much to assert my position. So I kept my cool. Then recently, a song sneaked its way into my head and took me back to that time.
There’s a song that Luhya children sang to their mothers while skipping around the homestead in play. While their mothers prepared the fields in anticipation of the coming rains, they would sing:
Mama mbe zimbindi nzie kuminza
Nzie nzie nzie,
The first part of the song is sang to the mother asking for cowpeas to scatter in the field. The second part of the song goes:
Kiravura kitiezo, ngani inzara yakwita
Na nunyori kanyama, ushiezanga nogonga
Here, it seems to be the mother responding to the child saying, if it were not for kitiezo – a salient shrub that grows wild in the field – we would have died of hunger. The second line is a general observation that if one happened to find meat, they would grind on the millstone with joy.
In his book Western Kenya Historical Texts, Gideon S. Were explains that the name Nyang’ori, by which the Terik are known, dates to the severe famine of 1907 that led Teriks from the Nyang’ori area to steal cowpeas from the fields of the Joluo. As a result, the Joluo nicknamed them “stealers of cowpeas”, Nyang’ori.
Were notes that the traditions of the Terik confirm the fact that the name Nyang’ori was a nickname given to them by the Joluo due to the community’s habit of stealing their cowpeas. While still in primary school, my friends would always remind me that our village once went by a Terik name, Matrin. Nyang’ori seems to be a recent addition in the history of my village.
Now history confirms as factual the basis of that old man’s speech from my childhood. It gives space for whatever emotion he must have felt while expressing his feelings about my village – a century-old grudge. And a century might be a long time to still hold resentment over stolen food, but not long enough to completely erase the influence that the customs that defined relations in the time of our ancestors have on our present lives.
There is a stereotype that conflates the image of an absurdly full platter with most people’s thoughts about the Luyia community. For the longest time advertising, and more recently social media platforms, have reinforced this stereotype with performances of Luyias devouring huge amounts of food in one sitting. Without understanding that absurdity is one of the mechanisms that promote visibility on social media, one might easily be led to believe that a Luyia chewing a whole chapati in one mouthful on TikTok actually does that in real life. Or that a teenager decimating a kilogram of ugali on his own in front of a camera is a normal event in their homestead. Any Luyia with experience will tell you how that makes no economic sense in the village.
This is that part where you, the reader, struggle to detach this image from stories you’ve heard your Luyia friends tell about some of their interesting experiences back at home, upcountry.
A good number of Luyias really are guilty of contriving to always have the better share of certain meals. Luyia men in particular, have historically benefited from traditions that denied women the opportunity to fully enjoy chicken, as some parts were only served to the older male members of the household, the most infamous prohibition being that of emondo, the gizzard.
There is no concrete reason why the ban existed except that the emondo was meant for vasakuru, the elders only, as my aunt tells me. My efforts to reach an elder for an explanation about why the emondo was reserved solely for them were met with reticence. An online group that discusses a wide range of issues on the subject of Luyia culture and life—known on YouTube as the Luyia Fun Group—offers an interesting reason why women are prohibited from eating emondo in one of their videos. They claim that the emondo was found (by the elders) to bear a striking resemblance to a certain part of a woman’s body, and therefore rendered women unfit to eat it because of the homosexual imagery suggested. If there is any truth to this claim, and knowing our ancestors for who they were, the ban must have been a metaphor for their stand on a conversation many of them were obviously not ready to have.
Today, this metaphor has clearly been stripped of its latency. The stand it sought to soften remains in the community though, an oxymoron of the idea that queer manifestations of sexuality are imports of the western world to Africa. There’s still great denial of the existence of homosexuality in African communities, and where denial has failed cloak and dagger have been employed. Dissenting arguments usually range from homosexuality being against traditional African values, to it being unchristian, and most recently, a product of our continent’s interaction with Western culture on social media.
In my village, institutions dating back to the time before any contact was made with the Western world expose the contradiction in this dissent. During the time of my initiation into manhood under the Tiriki institution of idumi, manhood, one of the initiates in my rikura, age set, had long been known to have homosexual inclinations but faced no violence based on his nature during the whole period of seclusion. One would expect that such an institution rooted in African tradition would be extremely hostile in its attempts to correct the unmanly aspects of an initiate, in imparting its conception of manhood to a male member of the community.
In the mid-1920s, when the Quakers were establishing their mission station at Kaimosi, Luyia women in the larger Vihiga area were not allowed to eat eggs. This culture prevailed until the intervention of men who had just gained literacy from the mission set up by the Friends Quakers at Kaimosi. Yohana Amugune, who was among the first men to convert to Christianity at the Friends Kaimosi mission, went back to his village in Chavakali to spread the gospel. One of the reforms he sought to which he sought to apply his new knowledge and belief was the eggs issue. In his essay Yohana Amugune and the Maragoli published in the Biographical Essays on Imperialism and Collaboration in Colonial Kenya compiled by B.E Kipkorir, J.M. Mwenesi writes that upon returning from the mission in Kaimosi, Yohana Amugune broke the taboo and made no secret about letting his wife eat eggs, previously the preserve of men.
Christianity seems to have revolutionized food culture in Vihiga by pushing for the full inclusion of women at the dining table. On the other hand, it required them to forget crucial items on their menu, such as ugali (a stiff porridge) made from traditional grains.
Azangu, a historian I met at the National Archives while researching this story, had interesting thoughts about this matter. Azangu grew up around the Kaimosi mission in the ‘80s. The insights he shared with me suggest that the introduction of religion might have had a lot to do with the disappearance of certain foods and the adoption of others. Azangu told me how the Friends Quakers missionaries in Kaimosi grew maize to cater for their food needs, fostering the gradual shift from the traditional staples of sorghum and millet to maize among the new converts. One of the contributing factors to this shift was that maize was a bigger grain that was not as labour-intensive to cultivate and harvest as sorghum and millet. However, the biggest attraction came from the social benefits guaranteed by the shift rather than the economic incentives.
“During that time, the white ugali made from maize flour was associated with Christianity and modernity, this directly translated to higher status. . . The preparation of the brown ugali was pretty difficult, it required a higher level of skill to prepare compared to the white ugali.”
Azangu’s thoughts on Luyia food culture confirmed to me the idea that, perhaps what is viewed, and has been viewed for long time as an obsession with food, is rather a social structure that has embedded food security within its order – the order being efficient enough to sustain its people and itself, but also enough to be viewed as exploitative by outsiders who might not fully understand the culture.
In response to a question I had posed about whether Luyias really eat as much as the stereotypes suggest, Azangu said, “We do not eat that much, we just cook enough. And if you find yourself finishing all the food you’ve cooked, you are still not content.”
I find his remarks very comical but still legitimate. Food security has always been embedded in the social structure of the Luyia community. We have always had a culture of sharing food that bestows a feast-like quality on every meal prepared – we are not afraid of having guests join us at meals, we do not want to have to be awkward with those who find us mid-meal, and so we prepare even for those who are not present.
So, rather than being a love for food, for Luyias, it is a love of life; how could one separate the concept of life from food? That’s why Luyia funerals might be mistaken for feasts because they are actually a celebration of life. When the Keima drum is beaten, preceding the funeral procession, prompting the villagers to find their way to the home of the bereaved, it also asks them to fill their baskets with produce and carry them to the feast they are heading to. Most strangers cringe at the sight of villagers packed inside the homestead of the bereaved whenever a villager dies, being served mountains of ugali in plates on the verge of breaking from the weight of their contents. But a wise Luyia with an idea of what a functional Luyia society looks like or once looked like, appreciates the role of the dead to the living. They might validly argue that the departed is playing their last role on earth, giving life to not just one person, but to the whole community.
The departed deserve an opportunity to leave with a bang!
The song in my head is a song many Luyia children know. It is a song contemplating scarcity while it drips of joy. A song whose significance might be considered by many as just an historical record of emotion during a time of scarcity – a grave omission of an important message that the song seeks to relay to all children and adults with access to it: Prepare for better days, for worse times have existed, and always remember to be joyful.
Apart from the disappearance of the grinding stone and the loss of prestige of the white ugali, a lot has changed over the past century in Luyia food culture. From the emondo coming to resemble only itself – part of a chicken – to be eaten by women, to eggs becoming a normal thing for women to eat. The only constant has been rikuvi, the vegetable that grows when cowpea seeds are scattered in the fields. The cowpea seeds that the Nyang’ori people went down to Nyanza to steal more than a century ago, seeds that earned them their name.
Perhaps, the strange emotion that made the old man declare his dislike of the name Nyang’ori was due to his inability to reckon with the fact that time had erased its negative connotations but had left the name and its history intact.
This really is strange.
On our way back from Kawangware market, my friend and I happened to pass by the same spot where we had shared the tongue and overheard a woman asking those in her company, Tukule roho? Shall we eat heart?
We exchanged glances, smiled, our tacit agreement not after all exclusive to us, nor our secret cravings.
Everyone loves to eat, and to share food.
Luyias are no exception. We just eat.
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The African Tourist
Hoping to mingle with the locals in Amsterdam, Jamaa stepped out of his comfort zone and found himself sharing a Belgian beer with an astute observer of Dutch life.
It was the time before corona.
Jamaa, a regional technology sales leader, often travelled from Nairobi to the head office in Stockholm. While on these annual trips, he never ventured beyond the confines of the head office or his hotel on his own. His spirit of adventure was limited to packaged city tours. He concluded that he could only handle Europe in small doses and usually, after a week, he was eager to return to the familiarity of Nairobi.
But after a generous company bonus, and with the urging of a senior executive who had subtly reminded him to prioritise his mental health, Jamaa decided to do something selfish – take a three-day solo holiday in Amsterdam. Before this, his experience of Amsterdam was limited to Schiphol airport, a transit point. This would be his first trip into the city.
The immigration officer who picked him out of the crowd of travellers asked for his passport.
What brings you to Amsterdam?
He thought about it and replied,
Oh! A conference on tourism in Amsterdam?
No! I have come to Amsterdam as a tourist.
He repeated slowly as he flipped through the passport. He stopped and examined the Schengen visa and then handed him back the passport and with a stiff smile and said,
Enjoy your visit to Amsterdam, sir!
From previous travelling experience, he knew not to spread himself too thin by running through a checklist of attractions. He desired an upmarket experience in keeping with his new status in the company, away from the cliché tourist traps of the past. So he called Gili for a recommendation. Gili is a relative on his mother’s side who had worked in Europe’s hotel industry for decades and had recently returned home to Kenya for good. She had lived in Holland for many years.
She suggested a trip to Maastricht, a city in the south of the country strategically located between Belgium and Germany. Maastricht is where the Treaty on European Union was signed in 1992.
Even just saying it, sounds gisty! Maastrichtttt. . . she added.
Jamaa thought it sounded remote.
I want something more posh and not far from Schiphol.
Okay, look up Hotel Twenty Eight.
That name does not sound posh.
It is in a posh area. You will feel it in your pocket.
A few days later, Jamaa checked into the apartment hotel in the south of Amsterdam that Gili had recommended, happy with his decision to spoil himself a little. The apartment overlooked a town square lined with birch trees and decorated with suspended stone sculptures depicting various athletic disciplines. Around the square were sleek apartment buildings. Below them, at street level, he could see a bakery, a flower shop, a supermarket, a cosmetics shop and a few bars and restaurants. It gave off the vibe of an upmarket mall in one of those leafy suburbs of Nairobi where expatriates live.
Across the road, over a tramline was the inspiration of the area – the Olympic Stadium built for the 1928 Summer Olympics. At the entrance to the stadium stood a tall tower where the first modern Olympic flame was lit for the very first time, a prestigious national monument.
He desired an upmarket experience in keeping with his new status in the company, away from the cliché tourist traps of the past.
The stadium has since evolved into a multi-functional venue. One of its prime annual events is the Amsterdam marathon. Jamaa discovered that the first Kenyan to win the Amsterdam marathon was Joseph Jebet, in 1996. Since then, Kenya has produced the highest number of winners in the Amsterdam marathon. Had he arrived three weeks earlier, he would have witnessed another Kenyan taking pole position in the men’s event.
On his first day, he went on a long leisurely walk through the neighbourhood, admiring the architecture, the parks and the manicured green spaces along the canals. Back at the hotel later in the day, he stopped at a restaurant on the ground floor. The long bar was empty and two waiters stood in the corner engaged in conversation. He allowed them time to notice him but they did not acknowledge his presence. Just as he was about to draw their attention, he saw a blonde-haired young woman in a branded white shirt walking towards him.
She said something to him in Dutch and he asked her to repeat it in English.
Of course. . . I was saying can I help you? Are you looking for something?
He did not understand why she would ask him that question as he was seated on a bar stool waiting to make an order. He felt irritation rising but kept his cool.
Can I get a beer?
She stared at him blankly for a brief moment and then switched to a professional tone,
Of course, what beer would you like?
A dark one.
As she walked hurriedly back to fetch the order, Jamaa began to wonder what she saw when she saw him.
On the second day, he followed another Gili tip and rented an e-bike for the day. It was a comfortable bike, designed to make it easier to ride against the wind. He found a leafy public park called Vondelpark that reminded him of the old Uhuru Park in Nairobi during public holidays – a place where people come to see and to be seen.
Later in the evening, emboldened by his newfound sense of adventure, Jamaa returned to the recognizable Olympic square. He found the lively bar that he had seen from his hotel window and anticipated the opportunity of mingling with the locals.
He found a bicycle parking rack nearby, locked his e-bike and put the key in his pocket. As he pushed the door to the bar open, he remembered that he had forgotten to chain the bike. Gili had warned him to chain the bicycle to something immovable like a lamppost and never to rely only on the bike lock.
They will steal your bicycle in Amsterdam, be sure.
Everyone chains their bicycles with a thick chain, the kind that you would use to secure a metal gate in Nairobi’s industrial area. Even old rusty bicycles. He found it strange that bicycles are not safe in a country that is closing down its prisons.
A middle-aged man with a round bald patch wearing geeky spectacles parked his bicycle next to Jamaa’s; it was branded with the Rent-a-bike company logo. He also used an extra chain. Probably a tourist, thought Jamaa.
The middle-aged man complimented Jamaa’s bicycle and they walked into the bar together and sat by the counter, leaving two stools between them. They both waited a long time to be served. The four employees behind the counter were busy doing their separate tasks. After some time, the bespectacled man leaned over the bar and demanded service politely but firmly and a young woman who had been arranging glasses turned her attention to him. When she approached, she found Jamaa ready with his order.
I would like to have what that gentleman just ordered, the dark one. I cannot pronounce it, my tongue is heavy.
Zatte tripel, Brouwerij ‘tij
Yes, that is what I am looking for. The dark one.
The two strangers raised their glasses to each other and moved closer, finding affability in a beer and a shared language. The bespectacled man soon launched into a complaint about the standard of service in Dutch bars. He found it too slow and made a diagnosis. Most bars are staffed with temporary employees who are not trained professionals. They simply do not care about your feelings.
The Dutch like to say they are direct but I find many of them rude! But they treat you better once you become a regular at a bar.
He informed Jamaa that they were not drinking a dark beer but a strong blonde beer from Belgium. He went to great lengths to explain its production characteristics and its taste. Jamaa would normally have settled for the recognizable Heineken beer and he was glad to discover and enjoy a drinking experience outside his comfort zone. And then the bespectacled man touched on a sensitive subject.
You speak very good English.
Jamaa was not sure whether to read that as a compliment or as patronising ignorance. In his younger days, his response would have been immediately militant, but the years had toned him down as he had grown weary of assuming a defensive posture every time he came across prejudice in white spaces. He preferred to counter it with sarcastic wit.
I am from Kenya, the Queen’s favourite colony.
A little disclaimer, I am English.
Of all the Europeans Jamaa had interacted with, it was the British that he was best acquainted with. He had played rugby against them in Nairobi, stayed at safari camps run by khaki-wearing conservationists and mingled with their corporate executives in private members’ clubs. He knew the reputation of the young and restless soldiers at the British army base in Nanyuki and the old, broke “wazungu kimbos” stuck in Mtwapa along the Kenyan coast. He had hoped to strike up a rapport with a native Dutch speaker and get intimate with the culture. All was not lost. The Englishman was an astute observer of Dutch life.
The two strangers raised their glasses to each other and moved closer, finding affability in a beer and a shared language.
Do you live in Amsterdam? Jamaa asks the Englishman out of curiosity.
No, I am from London, here for business. What about you, do you live here?
No, I live in Nairobi.
What brings you to Amsterdam? Work?
You are a tourist? And where are you staying?
Across the road?
At the Hotel Twenty Eight.
The Englishman looked genuinely surprised and offered unsolicited advice.
That is expensive. You can get a much better deal where I am staying at the Olympic Hotel just behind the stadium.
But I like it. It doesn’t feel too much like a hotel.
There was a lull in the conversation as the two men returned to the beers.
What did you say you are here for? asked the Englishman.
For a tourism conference in Amsterdam South?
No, I am a tourist.
Jamaa could sense the Englishman was trying to get something off his chest and eventually he did,
Forgive me for being so forward, how long did it take you to plan for this holiday?
So you must be rich?
Not in my country.
The Englishman returned to his beer and took a generous gulp.
Is this your first time in Europe?
Jamaa decided to nod; he was enjoying the perplexed expression on the Englishman’s face.
You will love it here, the architecture, the history, the art, roads that date back to the sixteenth century still exist.
I look forward to it. . . Have you been to Africa?
Never been and I wouldn’t go.
Jamaa noticed the fidgety eyes and did not press for details but instead changed the topic.
What should I know about the Dutch?
At this, the Englishman perked up and dropped his eyes as one does when about to gossip.
I have been coming here for five years. Everything is expensive compared to London. Be blunt, they don’t trust overly friendly people, and Amsterdam is not the Netherlands.
Forget the liberalism you see in Amsterdam. They have a Bible Belt. Just like in America. Some parts are so conservative, the women do not wear trousers. Ever heard of black stocking churches?
Jamaa was not sure whether to read that as a compliment or as patronising ignorance.
The Englishman continued to entertain Jamaa with his travel tales, answering all his questions about popular Dutch national stereotypes, the people, the country and its history. Eventually, Jamaa realised he was running late for a scheduled phone call to his family in Nairobi and bade his acquaintance goodbye after paying for the drinks.
The Englishman was surprised by his generosity and offered to buy a last round. Jamaa declined as he slipped into his warm jacket ready to leave.
I am sorry, I never asked your name?
My name is Jamaa.
Jamaa. . . Does it mean anything in your native language?
It means a regular guy.
He looked at Jamaa unconvinced.
There is nothing regular here! You are posh!
Finding Uncle Ben’s Daughter
Yoki was the insurance against Uncle Ben’s mortality. I held her for far too short a time to have any memory of her beyond the truth of her existence.
At the end of this story, you will realize that it is impossible to find Uncle Ben’s daughter. Not because she is mythical. She is real. I held her on my lap in 1995. I was only 13, preparing for my Kenya Certificate of Primary Education. My sisters Jackie and Belinda were also preparing for the same examination. And other cousins too. I held her on my lap. Her brown eyes were bright. Full of life and questions. Her little fingers curled around mine as she smiled, innocent of what was happening in the world around her.
Uncle Ben, Bernard Ogowe Ojuondo, lay on the bed that we sometimes shared, tired, looking at us, his head propped up by a thin pillow. He was worn out by the constant cough that robbed him of sleep and reduced his diaphragm to a web of bones wrapped tightly in dry, scaly skin. I was home from boarding school for midterm break. A few days earlier, my mother had sent word to Uncle Ben’s girlfriend to come and see him. And help care for him. That is why she was here. I don’t remember her name. The people who should remember her name also don’t. You will know why shortly. Uncle Ben had craved their presence. Also, whatever remained of him then needed delicate care that only an intimate partner could provide. It was fragile, threatening to fall over and break into pieces, disappearing into the world beyond. It needed rejuvenation. The girlfriend did not stay long. Taking care of a dying man needs a bond deeper than that of boyfriend and girlfriend.
Uncle Ben’s daughter is called Yolanda Denise. That is the name she went by 27 years ago. She may have been three when I last saw her so she is probably 30 now. Her nickname was Yoki. I held her for far too short a time to have any memory of her beyond the truth of her existence. The truth that becomes clearer in my mind with each passing day. One that I have wanted to realize and whose contours I have wanted to touch. And confirm that I am not crazy.
Uncle Ben was the first to qualify for university in my great-grandfather’s large family of twelve wives and many children. My great-grandfather, Paul Opiyo Manyala, was a chief and a medicine man. Uncle Ben attended Egerton University in Njoro. He had retaken his “A” levels in order to qualify for university. He was mostly inspired by my father, his brother in-law, who had become a high school principal at a very young age, fresh out of Kenyatta University. My mother would be the second one from a big traditional family to go to university. She would join the university the same year I did, in 2001. At 40 years of age. These details are important. Firstly, because Uncle Ben was the reason a few of my other uncles and aunties did not see the value of education. They reasoned that education took a lot of time and resources, and the potential outcome of joblessness would lead to depression and self-destruction. They had taken the time to study Uncle Ben, and their conclusion was that his degree had contributed to suffering and a painful demise. That education had set his ambition to an unattainable high, yet the reality of the Moi government was one of unemployment, a stagnating economy, and gradual decay,
Uncle Ben graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in Sociology in the early 90s, right when the World Bank had arm-twisted the Kenyan government into forced restructuring through the infamous structural adjustment programmes – the SAPs. The government was shrinking to allow for rapid and focused privatization of government parastatals, although there was no significant investment in the private sector to sustain this rapid privatization. The economy was shrinking. President Moi and his cronies were grabbing everything. What they couldn’t grab, they killed. Or sent to exile. Degrees were becoming nothing beyond the beautiful photos of graduates in gowns surrounded by their hopeful families. Unless one knew people in high office. Or you were planning to join the ruling party, KANU. A degree held no weight in the dying economy.
Uncle Ben died without having found a job. His résumé, typed on one of those old typewriters, did not list any post-university professional experience. He did not have any. He was, like many others, a professional job seeker. A charismatic one. Tall. Athletic. Handsome. His death from HIV in the early nineties threw my mother into one of the deepest economic crises of my lifetime. Probably worse than the one the World Bank had thrown the Kenyan economy into. And worse than the government would throw graduates with unmarketable courses such as Uncle Ben. My grandfather warned me against studying that cursed course. Never study sociology when you go to university, he said emphatically, his eyes, always red, glowing in their orbits.
My grandfather believed that the sociology degree was to blame for Uncle Ben’s unemployment. When Uncle Ben went to university, self-sponsored access to public university education was not yet available. Later, self-sponsored B-grade students from well-to-do families would go to medical school with government-sponsored students from poorer families who had attained straight As. But my grandfather, a driver in the Ministry of Agriculture, could not have afforded the cost of a self-sponsored university education even were the option available. Uncle Ben received the full government sponsorship that was available for university students before funding for higher education was restructured to accommodate the demands of the World Bank.
Please become a teacher
Uncle Ben should have studied education. At least the government was employing teachers. Or at any rate the school boards of governors were – when the government stopped employing teachers for extended periods. Many graduates from Uncle Ben’s cohort, not finding any prospects for employment, went back to university for something called in-service. Graduates would go to Kenya Science Teachers College for short courses that would prepare them for a career in teaching. They took the courses while teaching as untrained teachers, surviving on the meagre salaries paid by the school boards.
Never study sociology when you go to university, he said emphatically, his eyes, always red, glowing in their orbits.
Uncle Ben did not want to become a teacher like my mum, his sister. He did not want to be confined to a routine, trapped in the rural areas with students. He hoped for the bright lights of Nairobi. Or Kisumu. He hoped for a government job that came with a government driver and a Land Rover. Such as a District Officer. After all, his father was driving a graduate at the Ministry of Agriculture. But he did not mind receiving money from his sister when times were tough. My mum, with her tiny salary and carrying the heavy burden of a first-born, was educating both us, her children, as well as her siblings. Sustaining my grandmother. Sending handouts to my grandfather. And saving Uncle Ben.
When the reality of permanent joblessness hit Uncle Ben, when he saw the government for what it was, a wilting mess of bureaucracy, tribalism, and corruption, he thought of becoming a policeman. He had done his national youth service before going to university. He was tall and athletic. His eyes were blood shot. He was a perfect fit. After all, no one was calling him back from the many offices where his resume was stacked in a pile with those of other job seekers. Or in the dustbin, waiting to be burned along with other useless papers.
The tragedy of a single mark
Everything was fine as Uncle Ben prepared for recruitment in the national police service. Except for that prominent mark on his buttocks. The knife mark extended from his lower back to his buttocks. It was black and pronounced, like a fat earthworm. Or a little black snake. That mark disqualified him. At least that was the excuse the police recruiters gave him. We knew he failed because my grandfather did not know anyone in the police force. And he was not wealthy enough to buy the limited slots that were left after Moi’s cronies had gorged themselves full. Youth employment in the police force was used by politicians to win elections. It was currency. And President Moi’s people were entitled to the first cut.
One day, my aunty Catherine, the most beautiful one, the light-skinned one, the sassy one, came back home screaming at the top of her lungs. Her high-pitched voice tore the afternoon silence into tiny shreds. She was inconsolable. We would later learn that her lover had assaulted her. He had met her by the communal well where she was fetching water and had proceeded to take his anger out on her for jilting him. Uncle Ben was enraged. He was his sister’s protector and wanted to send a clear message as such. In a hurry, with his diaphragm swollen with anger, he set off to look for the assaulter. He charged at him when they met. They locked bodies and tussled. An unemployed graduate and village riff raff met at that junction of anger, frustration and testosterone. The assaulter drew a knife and slashed Uncle Ben in the back, drawing down to his buttocks. A crooked cut. It left a permanent scar. His chances of joining the armed forces or the police force disappeared with that scar. His sister and the man reconciled and rekindled their young love soon thereafter. For Uncle Ben, just like the degree in sociology, that scar took some of the blame for his unravelling life. The scar. Sociology. President Moi and the World Bank were all summoned and declared guilty when Uncle Ben’s joblessness came for up for discussion.
Saving Uncle Ben
My mother, Belliah is one stubborn woman. If she sets her mind to do something, in most cases she succeeds. She had set her mind to save Uncle Ben’s life. In the early 90s, it was impossible to save anyone from HIV/AIDS in rural Kenya. The complexities of the disease were compounded when one was surviving on a teacher’s salary. The salary was little. It came late and heavily deducted. My sister Jackie and I also depended on this salary for our education at the primary boarding school where we were enrolled. The local public primary schools in Ringa where my parents taught hardly took anyone to a good secondary school. The local boys and male primary school teachers were also neck-and-neck in a very stiff competition in the Olympics of impregnating teenage schoolgirls. We were shipped to boarding school to give us a good education and save us from the many local distractions.
There were no ARVs for ordinary people. Not in rural Kenya. Maybe for Magic Johson in America. In rural Kenya, there were sick humans, bony humans, coughing their lungs out on the floors of Russia hospital. Or on reed mats in homes. Surrounded by family and prayer. And traditional healers with their concoctions, and spirits.
For Uncle Ben, just like the degree in sociology, that scar took some of the blame for his unravelling life.
Uncle Ben and I shared a bed at one point. On many nights I would see him dig into that tin of paracetamol, scoop and toss a handful of tablets in his mouth. I lost count of the empty tins of paracetamol. I also lost count of the number of times we used wire cloth hangars to puncture holes in his leather belt to keep pace with his rapidly diminishing waistline. Something had to hold those jeans in place for that hospital visit. And the next one. Only that there was not much left to hold with each passing day.
I remember when I was in lower primary school and Uncle Ben was a full human, oozing life. I remember perching on Uncle Ben’s shoulders, his right hand holding my sister Jackie’s left hand as we watched movies at the open-air cinema at the local market. I remember going back to school the following day feeling cool, discussing my nocturnal adventure with the older boys who were brave enough to go to the cinema. Or when Uncle Ben explained to my aunties how to make chapatis. You put flour first. Then water. If you put water first, and it is in excess, you run the risk of running out of flour before you have a firm dough for good chapati. He called it logical sequence of events. Flour. Then water. In that order. He told us he had learned it in a course called critical thinking at Egerton University.
Or when he would ask me for a list of the most beautiful female teachers in my primary school. Which I readily shared, receiving a Big G chewing gum in reward, only realizing later that I was receiving increased care and attention from the teachers I had informed Uncle Ben about. Or when he would talk to me about university life. About freedom. About justice and the strikes they participated in to keep Moi’s government in check. Or when Uncle Ben, my father and I would watch World Cup soccer through the night in the late 80s. Then spend the day playing soccer, practicing Maradona’s dribbles. His presence filled my childhood the way a sweet smell can pervade a room, so that if the sweet scent fades away, then the room is different. The room is lost, until that sweet scent is back.
We are broke
You do not need to be told that your mother is struggling. Or that there isn’t enough money anymore because the disease is quickly draining away those savings. As quickly as the virus is feasting upon Uncle Ben’s body. The first signs are the slim shopping list. Luxuries like Tree Top mango juice and Blue Band margarine give way to medicine. Numerous bottles and tins of painkillers. And creams to deal with random body rashes. The two kilogrammes of cooking oil become one. The diet slowly changes into a healthy vegetarian one full of sukuma wiki and ugali. Daily. Then we started carrying a note to the local shopkeeper, to get us sugar on credit. Payment was mostly at the end month when the teachers were paid their salaries. Then the payment to the shopkeeper delayed because teachers’ salaries were not paid on time because of some budget deficit. Or some delayed loan to the Kenyan government.
The shopkeeper says something curt as he flips through his record book. He is impatient with me. He tells me there is no sugar in his shop. And while I am standing there, barely a teenager, he sells sugar to someone who has cash. I manage to force the questions out of my tightening throat. I ask. He retorts, “Tell your mother to pay last month’s debt first.” I walk back home confused. I start to hate his son who was a class behind me and never talk to him again. What was hidden to the world was that all the money was going to Uncle Ben’s medication. But one cannot cure death, as my grandmother would eventually say.
The old man
I refused to drink with my grandfather when the opportunity presented itself one afternoon. I sat across from him at Ulimwengu Bar, the small local drinking hole he owned. It also acted as his quasi-office and meeting point where his friends would gather to share with him the little money he had brought back from Kisumu. He worked as a driver at the Ministry of Agriculture. His bar is in a small town called Pap Onditi. In a place called Nyakach, which is famous for having produced Ochuka and a few other men who are remembered for the infamous attempted coup d’état of 1982.
On that day, in 2008, I sat across my grandfather and his friends, and bought them rounds of Tusker, while I sipped a warm Coca Cola. It wasn’t that I was a teetotaller. Not really. I was a drinker and quite in the chaotic loop of post-college partying. I had made it to university too. And I had a job. On this day, I wanted to leave his company before he got drunk on my charity. I also did not want my shoulders to sag with the weight of knowing that it was my money that inspired the drunken anger that he was known to sometimes unleash on my grandmothers. I excused myself, amidst his protests, and left. I promised to MPesa him once I arrived in Kisumu.
His presence filled my childhood the way a sweet smell can pervade a room, so that if the sweet scent fades away, then the room is different.
My grandfather, John Ojuondo, died in 2013 from the complications of a stroke. In my mind, he had existed in two spaces. The space before Uncle Ben died. And the space after Uncle Ben’s death. In the latter he was without glitter in his eyes. It was a complex existence where he was mostly lost in thought. One that I did not get enough time to know and to talk to him about finding Uncle Ben’s daughter. Or his choices. Like, why did he marry two sisters? Was he emulating Jacob in the bible? Did he find acceptance in the church with this choice, like Jacob finds amongst Christians, even though Jacob too, married two sisters. And still became the father of Israel. How did Uncle Ben’s death impact him? And what about my aunty Millie who was murdered by people hired by the wife of her lover. She was a young nursing student at Kakamega Medical Training College. Uncle Ben had promised to revive the cold case and find justice. If only he could get a job. Or become a policeman.
The reality of my grandfather’s demise and the missed opportunities hit me hard as my mother and I sat in my grandmother’s house. The local catholic priest sat across from us, on the green seat where my grandfather used to sit. The priest was being difficult, debating the boundaries of one being born a Catholic, versus one living life as a Catholic. My grandfather was born a Catholic, although the local church records indicated that he last took Holy Communion 48 years before his death. He did not live as a Catholic. He did not desire to live as a Catholic. But here we were, imposing religion on him when he could hardly defend himself. Smelling the strong odour of our desperation, the Catholic priest took a piece of paper and scribbled the amount he felt was owed to the church, payable before the church would oversee my grandfather’s burial; 48 years’ worth of missed holy communions. The negotiated price of posthumous salvation. The church had us in a corner. Just as joblessness had had Uncle Ben in a coma. My siblings and I paid.
I am not sure if my grandfather had much memory of Uncle Ben’s daughter. During the preparations for Uncle Ben’s burial, the old men of the community had come together and decreed that Uncle Ben was to be buried behind his mother’s house. His mother did not have a house since she had separated from my grandfather when Uncle Ben was a baby and become married elsewhere. Uncle Ben was raised by my grandmother. The Luo community are notorious for making a tough situation even tougher by invoking old traditions to appease some real or imagined spirits. A house was hastily put up to fulfil tradition. Uncle Ben’s mother came for the night vigil and the burial. Uncle Ben’s girlfriend and Yoki also came.
The search continues
In the past few years, I have taken an interest in finding out about Yoki. I have talked to my mother. My grandmothers. Uncle Ben’s stepsister. Uncle Ben’s mother. But there seems to be a major collective failure of memory. Also, time continues to chip away at any remote memory that is left. It is like everyone accepted and moved on. There are no photos of Yoki. And no photos of Yoki’s mother. She left hastily with Yoki after Uncle Ben’s burial and disappeared in the wind. Everyone closed that chapter. There are no leads on Facebook and Twitter worth following either. Time seems to have dulled the magic of social media and the line seems to be dead at that end too.
What was hidden to the world was that all the money was going to Uncle Ben’s medication.
I have kept this chapter open because there is something that stays with you as a young man, stuck in boarding school, afraid of coming home and finding your friend gone forever. It also becomes more real when you eventually live that fear. In the last few years, I have worked on constructing the memory of my time with Uncle Ben, block by block, like a Lego building of sadness and nostalgia. I have learned that the anchoring block of my most profound memories with Uncle was learning about Yoki, during those nights when Uncle Ben’s pain kept him awake. Those nights when we passed time between the handfuls of paracetamols that he tossed to the back of his throat. My young mind was afraid to ask many questions then. I listened mostly, occasionally thinking about the upcoming KCPE examinations and my disdain for primary boarding school. And hearing his fear of imminent death pounding through his chest, cracking the silence of the night, before him mentioning Yoki, followed by calmness. The mention of Yoki was the last call for hope during those long nights. It was a signal that the night was wasted, and we should catch sleep before the roosters signalled the break of dawn. That name, Yoki, was the insurance against mortality from HIV/AIDS. Uncle Ben’s mortality.
Yolanda Denise. Yoki. I hope you are out there. When you get to read this, let me know.
The Hidden Lives of the Trees of Amsterdam
Contemplating nature and falling back on the wisdom of trees to guide me through the unknown.
There was genuine cause for angst in the early days of the COVID lockdowns as the pandemic spread unabated throughout Europe. I was a new arrival in the Netherlands, marooned at home, working as a remote curator-at-large for the online publication The Elephant. While I appeared stoic to my team based in Nairobi, I could not shake off the feelings of uncertainty. I had a child who had just learned how to walk and my wife had started a new and demanding job.
Amsterdam was ghostly. Trepidation beset the city and it seemed as though people had gone into hibernation. On most days, in between Zoom calls to Nairobi, I would stare out of my home office window at a large weeping willow tree that stood on the edge of a canal, feeling a loss of control.
One morning, I noticed a flock of green ring-necked parakeets perched on the willow tree. I had not seen those birds since the days of my childhood in the Kenyan countryside and their appearance in a foreign country was serendipitous. In times of crisis one is attuned to signs from nature and in those familiar birds and in the willow tree, I found a sense of hope and belonging.
A friend from Kenya who arrived in Amsterdam around the same period also talked about the silent assurance he had discovered in trees. He worked the night shift. For months during those cold days, while his wife and children were away, sitting alone in the house staving off depression, he drew strange comfort from contemplating the sturdy nature of the single tree that grew in his backyard.
When you come from Kenya, winters are survived, chalked down and added to the résumé.
Having grown up under the tutelage of a father who was an avid forester, it was natural that I should fall back on the wisdom of trees to guide me through the unknown. But this awareness would unfold gradually as the trees of Amsterdam revealed their hidden lives.
There is a popular museum in the centre of Amsterdam, on Prinsengracht Street, dedicated to Anne Frank’s life, her famous diary and the secret annex. Anne Frank was born in Frankfurt, Germany, and her Jewish family had fled persecution for the relative safety of Amsterdam. When the Germans invaded and occupied the Netherlands in 1940 and began deporting Jews to death camps, Anne Frank went into hiding. During her two years in hiding, Anne Frank turned to writing to pass time, journaling not just the daily events but also her thoughts and feelings.
Anne Frank’s father Otto survived the war, found his daughter’s diary and it was eventually published in 1947 under the title The Secret Annex.
There is a passage in the diary where Anne writes about a tree, a white horse chestnut that she used to stare at from her window in the attic. That huge tree standing in the courtyard garden, 170 years old, was a beacon of freedom, longing and hope.
Tragically, Anne and her sister Margot were arrested and deported to the Auschwitz concentration camp where they were separated from their parents. The sisters were taken to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp where, under the unhygienic conditions, they both succumbed to typhus and died in February of 1945.
When I went off in search of the famous tree that Anne Frank wrote about, I found that it had fallen 10 years earlier in 2010 and all that remained was a stump. I found a connection with the story of the horse chestnut tree in Anne’s diary because trees were one of the first signposts that I used to navigate the newness of this city.
There is another tree that is located in Bijlmermeer in the south-east of Amsterdam that is not as famous as Anne Frank’s tree. Its story is much more recent. In 1992, an El Al cargo aircraft en route to Israel lost its engines while trying to circle back to Schiphol airport for an emergency landing. It crashed into Groeneveen and Klein-Kruitberg, two multi-storied apartment buildings, killing 43 people, most caught unawares in their homes innocently winding down the day.
There were speculations that the death toll may have been higher as many undocumented and unregistered people were not accounted for following the accident. On the site, facing a new apartment block, sits the tree that saw everything, a living witness to the Bijlmerramp air disaster.
Amsterdam is a green city and trees are everywhere. The canals are lined with old elms and practically all city roads and neighbourhoods are fronted by straight lines of trees, usually of one species. The tenement buildings may appear to have the same aesthetic similarity of the predominantly red or grey brick walls. But in the courtyards, hidden from street view, are lush green gardens and trees.
I was soon able to guess the age of a neighbourhood by looking at the size of the trees growing in it. I also started to notice that most of the trees in Amsterdam grow straight. Crooked trees are a rare sight.
Many mightn’t be bothered by this little detail but I began to inquire about the stories behind the trees of Amsterdam. A tree is crooked because it adapts to nature and the forces it encounters, but the breadth of uniformity I encountered in the Dutch landscape was an indication that nature had been colonised.
The Amsterdamse Bos (The Amsterdam Forest) that is located in the southwest of Amsterdam, sitting on the border between Amsterdam and the Amstelveen municipality, is a prime example of this. It is an imposing city park, of a scale and order that I find intriguing. Measuring 1000 acres, it is about the size of Nairobi’s Karura Forest, with one unique distinction; all the trees were planted by hand and its all features, including its artificial lakes and solitary hill, are products of grand design. There is also within it a naturist area where nude sunbathing is allowed.
Amsterdamse Bos began as a government work relief effort to deal with the economic crisis of the 1930s. Today it is a functional park, a natural landscape designed for recreation and relaxation that draws in 4 million visitors every year.
I remarked to a Dutch friend over a cup of coffee that the Amsterdamse Bos felt like a big green arcade. To which he shrugged and said, ‘’Poof! You think this orderly, you should go to Switzerland. They are worse than us.’’
Then, as if in admission that he was accustomed to unnaturally neat nature, he recalled a road trip he had taken in Canada a few years earlier. As they drove through the spectacular Boreal forests, both he and his wife agreed that the forests were magnificent. . . if only the Canadians would clean up the forest floor and keep it tidy.
Another Dutch friend took me on a tour of the Vondelpark in Amsterdam, to a spot over a white wooden bridge from where I had a direct view of a tall fountain in the middle of a serene pond with a leafy tree line as its backdrop, spraying water high into the air.
“You see that picture. . . it was designed to be a paradise ideal and nature has been conquered for human splendour with man as the sole animal in it.”
Indeed, it was getting harder to distinguish between what was natural and what was artificial. The Netherlands is a waterproofed country and it is easy to forget that most of the country lies below sea level. It is a country that conquered the waters after a long struggle against nature and 17 per cent of the country’s landmass is reclaimed from the sea.
This is why “God created the earth but the Dutch made the Netherlands’’ is a well turned phrase.
In an effort to know my neighbourhood and meet the locals, I joined the Knotgroep of Uithoorn, green volunteer effort that operates in a municipality on the outskirts of Amsterdam. The group of volunteers are all Dutch pensioners with an average age of 60, and there are as many men as there are women. As I park my bicycle, I receive a series of hoi, Dutch for hi, pronounced with much emphasis.
After a briefing by the group leader, the pitchforks and rakes are distributed and we walk to a privately-owned polder that is used as a paddock on the border of a small lake called Zijdelmeer. Mown grass is strewn all over the paddock. The ground underneath the soaked grass is wet and I can smell manure. Our task is to pile the cut grass into haystacks. The work takes effort and jackets are soon thrown off. Why do they subject these senior citizens to such strenuous work?
I ask why this work is not done by machine given that the Dutch have a machine solution for every task to be done in nature. I am informed that the stacks of grass we are preparing are nesting places where small harmless snakes can hatch and thrive. It also leaves room on the ground for wild cranberries to grow. Such delicate work, necessary to balance the ecosystem, can only be done by hand.
The group continues to work silently and meticulously, and then suddenly, excited voices come from one end. We gather around to find out the cause of all the excitement.
Someone has found a frog.
I am puzzled so I turn to my group leader, a tall Dutch man called Bill.
“Why are we getting excited about finding an amphibian in nature?”
‘’We don’t have frogs here anymore,’’ and he recounts the story of his youth and of a time when nights were filled with a cacophony of croaking. But since the arrival of the red swamp crayfish, an invasive species that feeds on aquatic plant and animal life, the nights have gone silent.
It then occurs to me that for all the canals that surround the neighbourhoods, I never hear any frogs croaking at night.
‘’We are just trying to bring back nature.”
I want to tell Bill about the irony of Nairobi, the former Green City in the Sun that has declared war on trees in an effort to modernise its infrastructure while Amsterdam seeks to return to its natural past and where trees are valued as sites of memory. But I don’t voice my thoughts.
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