Monthly Archives: July 2013

the second hand

There’ a book i love. It’s called Freedom and it’s written by Jonathan Franzen. It came out back in 2011 and it was probably the biggest book news of that year apart from a Dance with Dragons by George R.R. Martin. He was on Orprah, he was on the New York Times, and he even made the cover of the Time Magazine, Franzen I mean. Things don’t really get much bigger for authors than that. Not nowadays. It was a book that was hard to get in Kenya. I had a friend who had it but she gave it to a friend who gave it to another friend who lost it and I was sad that  I wouldn’t get to read this book that made such ripples. Last year I unscrupulously got my hands on it.


The second section of the book is called “mistakes were made.” It’s an autobiography of one of the characters written by the character on the advice of her therapist. It was a beautiful section, but then again most of the book was beautiful. The title of the section stuck with me. “Mistakes were made” it’s a description of so much of our lives. Every day we wake up a little sadder, a little guiltier, a little less happy we know it is because mistakes were made. When we get robbed and beaten mistakes were made. When our hearts are broken or when we break other people’s hearts mistakes were made. Every time we fall and get up again mistakes were made. Every time we are late mistakes were made. In fact one way of summarising any life is mistakes were made, there’s more truth in that eulogy than in most of the things we get up and say.


Lately I’ve been reading for my oral examinations. They are these big deal exams that take at most 15 minutes where you have to wear your best suit and polish your shoes and tie your laces, then you get up in front of an interview panel that can ask you about anything you learned in the last 5 years of your law education and dip into (if they want) current issues like the teacher’s strike and the ICC and the ridiculous provisions in the marriage bill. Mine are much later than most of my class mates so I’ve been sitting home and researching on the questions they were asked, typing up answers and printing these so I can read them. There’s no time for spell check plus I really don’t feel like doing it, when I’m done all I want to do is leave the room. As a result there’s a lot of spelling and grammar mistakes. The thing I’ve been thinking the most when I read them again is mistakes were made.


I thought about it so much that I ran into Freedom being sold by one of those booksellers dotted across the city. I’ve made books appear before just by thinking about them, most notably White Teeth by Zadie Smith some time last year. It’s a thing that can happen if you are perfectly willing to ascribe meaning to coincidence and as nearly all of us started off religious so we can do it.


There’s a lot of talk on the internet about the disappearing of bookshops and bookstores. This is a purely western problem occasioned by digital stores and the proliferation of e-book readers. Books are on their death knell, or I should say books as we know them. The Greeks crammed everything into their minds, reeds were used as well as walls and papyrus. Paper is just one in a long line representing the evolution of how the written word is passed. We probably won’t be alive when we see this happening but books will disappear, except right now when I walk through the streets of Nairobi I feel like I have never had such access to so many books before.


Walk through town, down any street you will find a bookseller. On the ground will be his wares, spread out for all to see and rummage through. They are there from the morning till the sun sets. Pretty soon you don’t have to stop for a long time to know if you will find what you are looking for, some sell romance, some thrillers and the best hard to find classics. I can’t help stopping even when I know I have enough, even when I know I can’t really afford another book.


I remember going to meet friends for lunch once and spending all my money on books so all I could afford was fare home. They aren’t expensive and for most of my life I couldn’t afford books so I think I’m being greedy now. Where could I get over 1,000 shillings without specifically planning a trip to the bookstore, now I can’t walk around without tripping over one of these books. It makes me wonder about all these people who say Kenyans don’t read. I remember a few years ago I could buy a movie or a series at 50 shillings and a book cost 20 times more. In such a situation it isn’t hard to imagine that people chose what they could afford. Now though we can have books and it happens that people will crowd around these mini-bookstores and search for a title or let it search for them. I love getting on my knees with this sense of possibility that I could find something good. Every time I find something that I like I say thank you to them. And this post is also just to say thank you. Thank you for the freedom to read.



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mat stories

A couple of weeks back i was taking a matatu down james gichuru road, as usually happens there was heaps of traffic between strathmore and lavington green. The driver was unfazed by this and he took the third lane, commonly known as overlapping. There seemed to be an implied agreement that matatus on this route can do this because right in front of us was another matatu doing exactly the same thing. We followed this winding route for a while with all the cars to the left of us stationary and no cars to the right of us. I was happy because I was in a hurry and no one minds a matatu breaking rules if it gets them where they are going. The other matatu started trying to enter the traffic but this was impossible because there was a gridlock ahead of us. Apparently that driver had miscalculated and driven right into the path of a traffic policeman who told him to stop. This was a big cop. Not muscular but fat, he wasn’t a fat man, he didn’t have the face that girth usually gives to men, that round, almost always jovial face that can be turned menacing by constant scowls. Instead it was oval and he didn’t look like he could quite carry his weight well yet. He was fat but he wasn’t a fat man. Then he saw our matatu and yelled to the driver to stop. As if he was in his own compound the driver put the matatu in reverse and started backing away. The policeman saw this and shouted angrily, but like all things on a fat man who shouldn’t be fat it was hard to take it seriously. He began running after us. I sat there in shock. I couldn’t believe what was happening as the guy slowly but surely asked the guys he had been overlapping to make space for him. They did. The policeman was now running towards us, huffing and puffing, throwing his weight around like a child who hasn’t strapped his bag on properly and is very, very happy to see a relative, in other words carelessly. The driver continued, he was measured, he was calm, his conductor had got off the matatu. Finally he turned around and then he drove away. The policeman gave up on us and walked back to his earlier prey. We went and used another route. In Kenya there is impunity.


Whenever I’m lost and its night and I’m looking for a matatu to one place or another I always ask the touts. They stand there screaming their heads off for fares but as soon as you ask where to go they will take their time and tell you. They will ask the person screaming next to them and he will explain if they don’t know. this thing they do for work, namely making sure their vehicle is filled up will be something they put away for a while just to help you find yours. I noticed it was something I had been taking for granted and its one of those things that make me feel touts get a very rough deal. I can’t speak for how they treat women, there are probably some very legitimate beefs there but usually they are very efficient and professional. It happens so rarely that you remember every time it does that you get the wrong change or that someone gets hassled for no reason. Most times they even remember to tell the person who asked them when its time to get off (another thing I will always do when I need to get someplace and I’m not sure how.) the other day I was in town during the day and I looked up and noticed this commotion. This is what was happening, there were three conductors waiting on this bus-like contraption that goes to uthiru. They shouted and touted until someone got on and as soon as that someone did they gave him or her a round of applause. Not a round of half-hearted applause, but meaningful from the heart i-love-this-english-football-team-for-no-reason kind of applause. They went on doing this for quite a while and that sight made my day.


Some weekends back I got on a matatu to town. The driver wanted to pass by state house road and I was sitting next to him.

“wacha tuende tuone kama mzee amerudi kutoka nakuru”  let’s go see if the old man has come back from nakuru (Uhuru had been visiting Nakuru that day)

“tuingie tu, tumwulize vile siku ilikuwa, kama amechoka. Waliongea juu ya nini huko. Ingekuwa mzuri ingekuwa hivyo. Unaingia tu state house, unaongea na rais, ata wanaweza tu search kwanza waone hatuna risasi. Tuingie hapo, tukunwye ka-chai, ka-kahawa kidogo tukiongea juu ya nchi. Tunamwambia tuliona akiongea na nani tujue kama walizingumza story ya walimu  kama watapata hiyo pesa ama wakae ngumu Mimi ningekuwa rais ingekuwa hivyo, kwaajili hawa ni watu wako, wenye walikuchagua.”

We just get in, we ask him how the day was, if he’s tired. What they talked about over there. It would have been good had it been like that. You just walk into state house, you talk to the president, they can even search us first and see we don’t have guns. We get in there, we drink some tea, some coffee, we talk about the state of the nation. We tell him we saw him talking to what’s-his-name we find out if they talked about the teacher’s strike, will they get that money or will they have to take life hard. If I was president it would be like that, because these are your people, the ones who chose you.


We get past state house(this road is illegal for matatus to use by the way) and he changes the sign on the matatu to private.

“ata saa hii nikisimamishwa na karau…aahhh… namwabia tu hii ni private car, tumetoka kutembea state house, kuonge na rais juu ya nchi. Tumekunywa chai na saa hii tunaeleka nyumbani. Anaweza cheka hadi aniwachilie tu”


Even now if I’m stopped by a police…aahhh… I’ll just tell him this is a private car, that we have just come from state house, we have talked to the president about the state of the nation. We had some tea and now we are going home. He’ll laugh until he just lets me go.


I think he would. You see this driver was not planning to reverse as if he was in his own compound.

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This week the results came out. I like this phrase because of the ambiguity involved in it. I like the way it can mean so many different things to whoever is reading it depending on what they are going through in life. In March we would all have understood it to mean the presidential results, after high school the KCSE results, if (like a very long sentence) there was a missing period; the pregnancy results. What it means though is the results for last year’s Kenya school of law students. It’s been almost 7 months since they did their papers. There were about 1,000 people in that year, they sat 9 papers each which means it took 7 months to mark, grade and confirm 9,000 papers. This when the teachers who have to go on strike to demand the fulfilment of an agreement they struck in 1997 mark millions of papers in one month. But if you are looking for quantitative results a bunch of lawyers is never the people you ask.


On Wednesday the school was a scene of joy, trepidation and sorrow. Trepidation because so many people did not get all the results yet, they sat there and were told to apply for the missing ones. They were missing for all the reasons anyone in a public university could tell you; incomplete CAT marks, missing exam scripts, administrative irregularities, negligence, plain bad luck. To them I wish I good luck, to those who passed congratulations-that is the shit, to those who have some resits Godspeed.


It made me think though. You see many of the people I met used to be my classmates, we finished university together and graduated together and were admitted to the Kenya school of law together and I went off and did some travelling and deferred my studies for a year. A decision I cannot bring myself to fully regret because of the experiences I had and all that I learned about myself and the world and what I need in order to be happy in it. There was though a lingering feeling of being left behind. These classmates of mine had moved on to the next phase of their lives, they were all working in law firms or NGOs or other legalistic sort of places. Learning practical things about the practice of law and earning some money, establishing independence and finding their place in the world.


It’ strange I’ve always been left behind, when all my high school classmates went to university the year after we were done I took 2. I went to university and knew almost no one there. They all had previously existing social relationships, most people seemed to know each other from this place or that other one and I wandered alone into that. Pay no mind, four years is a long enough time to form bonds and get to know everyone, I didn’t feel left behind at all because none of my high school classmates pursued law. Then it happened again I allowed people to go forward and begin this new serious stage of their lives while I seem stuck in perpetual student hood.


It’s true I had last year and I wouldn’t trade it in for anything but conflicting emotions are a birth right of humanity. The ability to feel the present much more than we can treasure the past or fathom the future is one of the things that allows us to live and I’m interested in living. A lot of the times when I think back to Norway I’m not sure if it was real, I mean it had to have been real, I was there and I met all these people and had all these adventures. But when try to remember the cold, I can bring to mind that it felt like something was assaulting my skin as if a million, million tiny needles were worrying away at my pores. I can almost remember the day I walked around in my boots for hours until my toes felt like there were razorblades secreted in my socks. I can kind of remember Valentine’s Day last year, how I had got it in my mind that I wanted to go to a performance of the vagina monologues and that I did and that I enjoyed it. Then I remember how far away the venue was from where I lived and how hard it was to find it. I remember walking back afterwards, it was maybe 9 at night and the sun had been down for about 5 hours. There was darkness and cold and quiet all around me. There was snow at my feet up to my ankles but I can’t remember how it felt to walk in snow, I remember though that they used to put a mixture of salt and something else on the road so that the car tyres had some grip. But there were no tyres and no sound and no other people. I walked through this blue and black and white landscape and my mind mulled over all the girls that I had regretted losing and all the things that I wanted to tell them. But they were all so far away and at that time they weren’t exactly real, it was neurons in my mind firing back and forth and creating them anew like I was some sort of god and now this memory feels that way. I have to struggle to bring it to mind, I have to stop and furrow my brow and concentrate before I write because it was almost lost. It’s a struggle to make it real and I’m not sure if it is or it’s just something I dreamed up.


This is my problem with memory. It feels so much like a dream. An amazingly vivid dream. Especially memories of travel and places that I don’t see so much. Was I actually there? did my feet walk those paths? Because right now here is where I am. And just like a dream the further away I am from it the harder it gets to conjure it up. Once conjured the harder it is to convince myself that this happened, I feel sometimes as if I am losing my grip on these memories and once they are gone it’s just like a dream I can’t remember, something that never happened.

 Fortunately it’s not all like that. There are memories that are so present. Going skiing and losing control and falling down feels like something that’s happening now. I can remember slipping and I can remember hitting the ice and leaving blood there. I can even remember the old man who helped my friend learn for no other reason than to be polite. I can remember the old lady who asked where I lived afterwards and helped me pack my pair of skis into her car and dropped me home even though it was miles out of her way. Maybe it’s easier to remember warmth than cold. I remember without a doubt how shitty a tourist I was of European cities, sleeping all day, drinking all night. These memories are there and they can be accessed no problem.


Just writing about this makes me feel better already. On Wednesday after I said goodbye to my old friends as they went off in search of celebration or a balm for their woes I felt so disconnected from them. I felt some sadness, there was all this life they had gone through without me, they had been stressed and been happy and lived for a year apart. What they felt now was something I could try to empathise with, I could use it as an impetus to work harder over the coming months but I couldn’t be in it. Not the way I would have been if we had last year together. I felt sad because the bonds I have with them are not as strong as they used to be, not as strong as they would have been. Where they are now I am not and for a while there I felt left behind.

It’s strange this life, there is always a road not taken. And because we are cursed with the power to imagine, a gift that flows both from our memory and our ability to dream we can always feel a twinge of loss. There is always a feeling, a fleeting whisper of what may have been. Results came out this week and it made me think of what may have been. It’s not something I would willingly trade and thankfully life doesn’t give us the option of making those decisions. But results came out this week and for a while there it made me think.


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black friday

So, Black Friday is this thing that happens in the States. It’s the beginning of the Christmas shopping season and takes place the day after thanksgiving. It’s called Black Friday for a variety of reasons but the one I’m going to use is one of the few examples when black something meant something good. Apparently retail stores run on losses throughout the year until Black Friday happens and then from there until Christmas they make enough profit to cover up for the rest of the year’s performances. Their accounts are in the red until black Friday and then they are in the black.
On this day customers rush the stores, they wait in lines and spend their hard earned money for a gift for their children last year(according to wikipedia) 247 million shoppers spent about 400 dollars each resulting in turnover of 59.1 billion. I looked at the statistics again; googled the population of America, it is 313.9 million. This adds up to 78.6% of the population. Mind you not the adult population but the whole population including children and seniors and people who are sick and away at war and too poor to spend 400 dollars on one day.
Before I go on I would like to say that these statistics make no sense to me. Basically it says that every adult of able body went out on that day and spent 400 dollars. It says every teenager of able body also spent 400 dollars. All on one day. Since its average maybe all the rich people who threw a few million at the problem skewed the result but still it’s an amazing statistic.
Anthropologists say you can tell a lot about a society by how it reacts to stress, what it shops for, what it considers its unifying rituals and how well attended they are. Here we have all of those factors. There are people lining up from midnight the night before to the next morning and all through the day just to get a chance to buy a present for someone. This is a highly stressful situation, what they buy when they get to the top of the line is what they consider important it’s what they want to define them for the next few days, how they want their friends to think of them and how they think of those friends. It’s definitely a unifying ritual. What in your country gets 78.6% of the people out of their houses. It’s not the dawn of a new day, it’s not work, it’s not school. Kenyans were very celebratory about the 84% voter turnout we had. Looked at against the backdrop of the dismal voter registration the year before where the IEBC struggled to get over 50% of the eligible population to vote, looked at against the fact that at least 40% of our population is below 18 its suddenly comes to about 35% of the population. We are more than doubled by the black Friday turnout.
This in other words is the American tradition. Maybe a higher percentage perform thanksgiving ceremonies or watch the super bowl but this is different from those because it’s a public ceremony. It’s the most religious of religious ceremonies, the people of Israel waiting to see if the high priest will make it out of the ark alive, the people of the world waiting to see if there’s black or blue smoke coming out of the pope’s chimney. It’s a disruption of normal life that happens in public.
There’s long lines and an underlying potential and threat of violence fills the air. It hangs heavy and sooty and too much of it will put anyone on edge. It becomes extremely important, your position on the line because without it you are no closer to what you worked for than when you began. When someone cuts the line it’s a problem. There will be none of the polite murmuring and cutting comments. You will be politely thrown out and maybe cut up. This is no joking matter, violence happens on black Friday and you can’t really blame them. They are antsy, they are on edge and ready for a fight.
They all seem to wait in line to buy the same thing though. The Christmas present of right then, the hot new toy of the year that every child needs. I imagine that it cuts across class boundaries and demarcations, especially when shopping for kids. But all the children whose parents earn between x and y expect present z. any parent who doesn’t deliver had best deliver his best “Santa doesn’t exist” speech. In other words break the heart of the wee one. What I don’t get is why don’t the stores stock as much of this gift as possible. America is a highly surveilled and polled country. Google knows what the gift will be before the NSA does (well maybe not the NSA who we should all just include when ccing emails and skip a few steps.) Ok the NSA could tell them what product will be sold out and they could restock. There could be enough for every little child in America who wants it. And people could go shop for these things on Saturday or Sunday or after work on Monday instead of all doing it together. But maybe they want to do it together. Without togetherness it isn’t a unifying ritual, it’s just a ritual. It doesn’t pull together the African and the Middle Eastern and the Caucasian and the Asian and the European and the Black American and the Latino if they don’t all do it at the same time. They need one thing they all do that says to them that they are not so different. Maybe this is why the mad rush is preserved at all costs.
Ok, but why does everyone want the same thing? It’s something manufactured by advertisers its Don Draper coming up with an ad that says you are ok and what you are doing is ok. It’s not real because it couldn’t be for so many people. But then I also have this theory that if enough people believe in something then suddenly it becomes real. It’s a theory that helps me believe that the saints committed miracles and that there are places that witchcraft works and there are people I know who swear they saw ghosts. So maybe those 247 million people make it real by all wanting and believing in the power of this thing to heal so many rifts. To tell children who never see their parents that the love is always there, to tell families who never feel it that home is where they are, to tell wives who never believe it that their husband loves them and only them, to tell husbands who never know it that their wives still think of them as they did when they first walked down the aisle. These presents they spend 59.1 billion on have a lot riding on them. They must do what words can’t and what actions can only approximate if done over a long period of time. They must make up for things lost and be a promise of things to come. This is their purpose.

And it comes from a good place, a place of love and remorse and reconciliation and thankfulness. It represents optimism in the future and in the healing abilities of time that is rarely expressed elsewhere. It’s all those millions of Catholics going into a confession box and coming out lighter. Believing they had done their penance. It’s ugly but it’s ultimately rewarding. Khalil Ghabrain once wrote that there are those who give with joy and that joy is their reward and there are those who give with pain and that pain is their baptism. Black Friday looked at this way, with all the struggle entailed is both a reward and a baptism. I didn’t think I would be endorsing it when I came to the end but sometimes you write just so you can change your own mind. Black Friday as it turns out says good things about American culture.

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