Monthly Archives: August 2014

Saturday scenes

I’m in a matatu going towards Mountain View. I have gotten the great seat in any matatu especially for people of average to tall height, the one in front right next to the person right next to the driver. The matatu has to come to a stop because there is another matatu right in front of us that has decided to let off some passengers. I can tell from how long we stay still in this traffic that the person getting off is not seated at the epic seat that I am. In fact it’s very clear that whoever this is (who’s in a 14 seater matatu) is seated at the seat at the back. That this person has to ask everyone to move before they can get off the matatu. I can almost see the scene in that matatu. I can imagine the people who don’t want to move and have to being brushed aside as this guy gets to the front. It’s even worse if there is anyone of considerable heft aboard that matatu. This means that phones are being rubbed the wrong way and even though it doesn’t happen that often anymore a survival instinct that abides in all of us who lived in Nairobi during the dark days of the forever phone robberies is immediately lighted. People hunch even closer to each other. This paradoxically makes it even harder for our exitee to leave the matatu it’s as if the fact that people don’t want him this close to them makes it extremely difficult for him to pass through their personal proximity. He keeps trying to leave though and this goes on for a while. We sit there with no movement any which way. The matatu driver is getting pissed (this time I mean mine) he hoots. He hoots and clicks. He hoots and clicks and tuts. He hoots and clicks and tuts and grunts. I can’t resist. I really can’t resist it.

“Hawa wasee wa matatu”

He laughs before he says, “enyewe watu wa matatu”

I also agree with him then he says, “pia we ni mtu wa matatu unajua.”
Of course I am and of course I agree. Public service operators like politicians are reflections of the public they serve. We all want our matatu drivers to be bullish. We don’t want any pussy-footing. We want them to get us where we are going as fast as they possibly can. We hate waiting in traffic. We hate being too late to where we want to get and we hate allowing them to be bullied. Let’s be honest a vast majority of the people almost anywhere in the world rely on public transport to get where they are going. It may seem like all your friends have cars but that’s just a function of your privilege (especially if you really do think this.) most people need that matatu, we are wasee wa matatu and it is thanks to us that matatus act the way they do. It’s our fault that they drive as recklessly as they do and it’s our fault that it keeps happening. We could boycott, we could prefer slower, quieter matatus but we don’t and we really won’t. We fed the monster and it in turn fed us. We live in a completely symbiotic relationship that we don’t want to let go of.

A few metres later the matatu driver also stops right in the middle of the road.
“cheki pia mi nafanya tu hiyo ujinga” he says as we laugh.

……………………………………………………………………………….

The other Saturday begins with an alarm clock. I look at the clock and its set for weekday times so I push it forward by an extra 90 minutes. I should take this opportunity to make it clear that I go to work on Saturdays. It has been one of the worst job experiences of my life. I hate working on Saturday with a passion that has not reduced as time has passed. When I first began I really hated the hangover that would accompany me to work every Saturday. I know that particular hangover well. A shade would be put over my eyes. There was a deep exhaustion, bone deep that accompanied me everywhere. In the Harry Potter books they say that drinking unicorn’s blood can sustain a man forever however there is a trade-off to doing this, the drinking of the blood of something as pure and holy as a unicorn would weigh down on your soul. It would make you half a man. It would grab away some of your essence and leave you with almost nothing at all. Well that’s how I felt almost every Saturday. And at first I really thought I would be able to stop drinking on Friday. I realised I wouldn’t. then I thought I would be able to stop drinking so much on Friday. I couldn’t. so I suffer that hangover every Saturday.

We should be at work at 9 but there’s a Saturday laziness leeway that extends to about 9:30 before you are considered late(recent events have rendered this sentence essentially false). So there I was enjoying the sleep of the drunk. When I finally woke up it was 9.45 according to my phone. I could not even be bothered to hurry up. I was well and truly late, maybe I’d get there an hour later probably more. 11 am was the best thing I could shoot for. Leisurely shower. Breakfast. The lack of the hangover which I attributed to all my extra hours of sleep and then I began to go to work.

We passed by a city clock and I looked at it and I could not tell the time. It looked like it was just past 9 and all the clockfaces told the same story. So I looked back at my phone and it assured me that I was nearly two hours late. So here I was misusing Occam’s razor because none of us ever learned how to shave themselves and assuming that what must have happened is that somebody came through in the middle of the night and set all the clocks back by a couple of hours, you know just to fuck with me.

I come to a lot more clocks (there are three of these clocks on my route to work) and they seem to agree with each other about what the time is. Immediately I get out Occam’s razor and nick myself. This time I think that I have forgotten how to read analogue clocks. I feel sad about this for a short time, resolve not to drink so quite so much on Fridays and I continue to work.

I get to work and apparently its only 9.30 by the reception clock. So then it hits me that what happened was, of course, my phone had the wrong time.

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24: live another way (a review)

24: Live another day aka Jack is Back.

Most of us loved 24. How many people don’t have a memory of binge watching the fuck out of a season or two of that show? The drama, the split screens, the clock ticking, the quiet and not so quiet ferocity of Jack Bauer and the ridiculously high stakes in every single season.

I started watching the new season of 24 that takes place in 12 episodes. And since I started working I have begun seeing a different moral to the story of Jack Bauer. Sure there are elements of the war on terror and the things people are willing to do in order to save lives. There is the whole nietzchean thing going for it the caution that you should not battle with monsters lest ye too become a monster and if you gaze into the abyss the abyss gazes into you.

However more importantly for anyone watching this show who has a normal life there is a very simple and applicable lesson to be learned. Play office politics it’s incredibly important. CTU the organisation Jack Bauer worked for was a hopelessly inept and inefficient agency. It was the kind of shop that Ole Lenku runs except so much more hilariously worse. There was a mole in that agency every other season sometimes more than one. Their building was perhaps the most unsafe place to be in in the midst of a crisis terrorists would strike right there at will. Bombs, nerve gas, good old fashioned gun raids, there may even have been a machete matter.

In the first episode of the new season Jack Bauer is on the wrong and gets himself arrested by the CIA. The whole point of this arrest is to break someone else out of custody. He, in handcuffs no less knocks out the armed guards including a guy who is slated to be the top field agent in the London office. He then breaks out his friend, there is a lockdown and he gets cornered by an efficient CIA agent. She’s so good that when she’s sacked and is also being escorted out by an armed guard she knocks him out with no trouble at all. She’s pointing a gun at Jack when one of his friends who has parked on top of the CIA building gets out and quite comfortably unholsters a rocket launcher and then fires into the road(it’s a basement complex) then gets both jack and his rescuee out.

That is the astonishing kind of incompetence that intelligence agencies frequently have in 24. The world would be run by a different terrorist cabal than that in charge now if it were not for Jack Bauer. He is quite simply the best. The fastest. The most efficient, the most right, the best with a gun, with a fist, with a question. The one who can hold up under torture for years. He is the one you call when there is a problem.

His exceptionalism does not however flow into his people skills. He can inspire breath-taking loyalty but he can only do this by saving a life. Otherwise he is a brash, brusque bastard. A genius who seems not to have time for anyone who cannot keep up with his genuine greatness. The result of his rubbing people the wrong way as soon as he meets them is that he cannot get the organisation to listen to him. His skills don’t matter at all because he cannot for the life of him play office politics.

In any environment where there is more than one person power games start being played. The more people and the higher the stakes the more vigorously these games are played. Politics is defined as the practice or theory of influencing other people. It’s what we do all our lives if we want to get anything done. We can accept that that is life for human beings or we can be like Jack and hope that our exceptionalism, the fact that we are right and efficient and on top of our game will be enough to get people to listen to us. That’s not how the world works.

This is in my opinion the central thesis of 24. What happens when there is an employee whose every pronouncement would streamline the company and make it 50% more efficient but this employee refuses to use the simple social skills necessary to play the game and change some people’s minds? 24 asks this question and then it answers it over and over. We’ve seen it happen 8 times now. I’m watching it happen a 9th time. Jack will always be right but that will not be enough. His neglect of basic human interactions means that he will be running uphill on a surface so filled with friction that he ends up running backwards.

They take it even further and place him in the company of incompetents. People who have gotten their jobs via patronage and have the kind of security that comes with working for the government. They are almost caricatures of civil servants so hopelessly inept that we can’t really be called on to believe in them as human beings. They are just a shade of contrast, a darkness to bring out in brighter light the awesomeness that is Jack.

To further drive the point home they did not set the show in any of the ordinary places they could have. If such a show was set in a law firm or a hospital or a police station it would be difficult not to let it play as comedy. That’s not what the creators of 24 want us to see. They don’t think it’s a laughing matter that exceptional talent gets buried because of the unwillingness or inability to engage in power play. They think it’s a horrid tragedy. And really we should see all the deaths that happen in 24 as a metaphor for all the good ideas that died because talent did not have tact, could not use its tongue. Set in such a high stakes atmosphere it is impossible to see it as comedy.

So the next time you think of Jack think of you. Politic a little because it would be sad to let a message couched in such a beautiful way to pass by unnoticed.

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so, about that top-secret ebola cure…

The world is a bitch. I kept wondering what i would write about today and then i saw the story about the Ebola cure. The Ebola cure that apparently is only available to Americans. I hesitate to say white Americans because maybe I’m just jumping to conclusions about race here. However is discrimination any less insidious because it is based on geographic rather than genetic factors?

As I’m writing this Oceans by Jay Z is playing in the background. I hope my black skin don’t dirt this white tuxedo. The song is about making it despite a background rooted in slavery. The chorus sings about the oceans in the middle passage. A time in the past when West Africans were traded like cargo, put in holds with horrible conditions, fed insufficiently, worked inhumanely and then when they died thrown over the ships that carried them away from home and freedom.

At the bottom of the ocean there are many, many stories. Most of them are horrible. There are stories of the ships of navies sank during wars fought for all the reasons wars are fought. The lies that people are told have a physical presence in the cold watery graves of the ocean’s caves. Vasily Grossman wrote in Life and Fate
Yes, if the sea was able to think, then every storm would make its waters dream of happiness. Each wave breaking against the cliff would believe it was dying for the good of the sea; it would never occur to it that, like thousands of waves before and after, it had only been brought into being by the wind.
There are those sad stories of war and loss. Then there are the stories of desertion and heartbreak, the bones picked clean by people with no other way to survive than to eat one of their comrades at arms. The tears they must have cried when they found joy in a full stomach and a soul unable to accept what they had done to their fellow human beings. But is there any worse story than the humans being carted to another continent where what awaited them was mistreatment, slavery, discrimination and a way of life that would haunt and hunt their descendants for years. To me conscience is a redeeming factor I, like all human beings have done some horrible things but I had the decency to feel bad about it. That’s a humanising factor. A conscience that tells you that what you are doing is wrong, that what you did makes you a bad person. However the middle passage was filled with perpetrators of wrongs who didn’t think they were hurting anyone. They thought they were doing what they were put on the earth to do and they felt they were doing it right.
I can’t write to them though. I can’t make them feel the wrong, the utmost wrong of what they did and all these things are in the past. But William Faulkner once wrote that the past isn’t dead it isn’t even past.
A fact is hundreds and hundreds of people died in West Africa due to the most recent Ebola outbreak. Ebola is not an easy death; it’s a quick one but not an easy one. A person infected with Ebola bleeds. They bleed and bleed and bleed then they die. I don’t know how literally losing your life blood can make you feel. Weak and dizzy I assume. Completely uninterested in life, unable to eat or drink really. You can’t laugh, you can’t walk, you can’t talk. This seems like something that will weaken you. Drop you down. All you’ll want to do is lie in bed, pull up the covers and wait for it to end. But nobody wants life to end and if you are infected with Ebola chances are you will die.
Hundreds and hundreds of people had to go through this. This did not happen too far back in the past. This has happened in living memory. This has happened while we wondered about the Malaysian airplane shot over Ukraine. This happened as we were completely concerned with what was happening in Palestine. This has been happening. It’s not past. It continues.

I remember seeing a link to an article about how big pharmaceutical companies would never bother to cook up a vaccine to Ebola because it made no economic sense. Viagra makes sense a lot of middle aged men with money will fork it over for another chance at a fuck. Ebola? Who’s going to buy that vaccine. It affects some countries in Africa where the per capita income of the people probably would not afford an i-phone let alone a highly experimental, expensively researched drug. That’s cold hard fact and it made me shake my head at the unfairness of it all. However, this was just the unfairness that came about as a result of economics. The evil god money got involved and he moved his pawns around and nobody could argue with him. It makes no sense for a corporation to pour billions of dollars into a project where they could barely make back thousands. Corporations like all living things find a way to survive. They have their antibodies in terms of shareholders and their symptoms of ailment in the form of falling share prices and dwindling dividends. As soon as a limb becomes gangrenous the shareholders will cut it off and the corporation marches on.

That’s the way it is. We can’t fight economics. It’s simply impossible. However imagine just such a corporation having a secret serum. A drug that could potentially cure Ebola. Having it since January and letting all those people die. Letting all those people die. We don’t have to imagine it. It happened not too far back, not even in the past. Just now it happened. The worst part is that as soon as it was American lives at risk there was machinery in place to move this drug to their aid.

Last week there was a US-Africa summit. I don’t know what heads of state talk about but if they don’t sit around at a point and say “hey, there are lots of people dying horribly, painfully, with no way out back in my country can you help Mr Most powerful man in the world?” then perhaps we don’t really need heads of state. It is impossible that the Ebola epidemic was not brought to the attention of the US government. The government that hosts the soulless corporation. What is possible is that the government said they couldn’t help. That there was no cure, no serum, no medicine, no hope. Only quarantines and death. Until one of their own was at risk then everything was moved. Every damn thing.

In the story about the serum there is this heroic act one of the Americans does where he offers the only available vial(the other one was still thawing ) to his compatriot. It’s given to him anyway because he begins to bleed too much and says that he is dying. In a better world the heroic act would be some kind of emergency relief where this company came out and said they had the serum. They said it was in a highly experimental stage but they would offer it to the people dying. In a better world the costs of production would be underwritten somehow, we now have crowdsourcing we do not need to rely on the governments of the world to provide aid. In a better world we wouldn’t wait until the ones who are more equal than others to be infected before action was taken. In a better world there would have been no need to sing a song like Oceans. In a better world, not even much better just slightly, I wouldn’t immediately jump at the connection between the need for Oceans and the need for Americans to get sick before action was taken. But…

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exhaustion

A lot has been going on in Kenya recently. There have been bombings, shootings, accusations, irresponsibility, incompetence, ineptness and a general feeling of having no idea what to do.

I never thought that I would live in a country that was going through this much insecurity for such an extended period. We had post-election violence and I still remember how that changed how I felt about Kenya as a country. How I felt about being Kenyan as a citizen. It was the shedding of innocence, the first big shock to the country. Kind of like the first death of someone in your age group. It’s something that theoretically could happen. Something that you had seen happening and t the whisper of its threat always played in the background. However it was so far in the background that it wasn’t real. A shadow in the night, a whisper in a nightclub, a peck during an extended BDSM session. Something so small that it wasn’t really real. Until it was. But with the blessings of hindsight we could see how it was almost inevitable. Life like all the best novels is filled with foreshadowing. The beauty of history is that it is predictive. All this happened before and so we know that it can happen again.

The ripples were there for all to see. the conflicts around elections. The Wagalla Massacre. the way we allowed politicians to turn us all against each other slowly then with more and more fervour until there was a climax of bloodshed. the long, long border with a country torn apart by war that we never really bothered to police. The fact that we never paid the police enough and all the endemic corruption that we allowed to be the rule of the country. the thinly veiled excuse we used to invade Somalia. the small acts of corruption that we have all engaged in?

All these things and many, many more worked together to bring us to the place where we find ourselves. Events don’t occur in a vacuum and while nothing is inevitable by the time that it actually happens there have been a million million little things coming together and interacting , atoms in space knocking each other out of orbit until at that particular time there was nowhere else for that tiny atom to be but where it finds itself. It’s easy to be deterministic in this world and walk around with a kind of fatalism that allows us to blindly trust in some divine plan or shrug our shoulders instead of bearing the weight of the historical and cultural confluences that brought us to a particular place. That way we forget the truth that changing one thing, not a big thing just a tiny little thing can change everything.

I think about Kenya in the last few months and the spectre of death that has been stalking our every step. Not death in the gradual though I can imagine no less shocking way that it gripped our country when AIDS was declared a national disaster but death in such a sudden manner. The ripping of a Band-Aid. The shooting by masked and unmasked men at night. The sip of alcohol that sends you further than a drink should. The kind of death that seems to make a mockery of plans and insurance premiums and governments and the value of life. It was once a shocking death the kind of death that slowed things down for a while as we digested the news about what was happening. The kind of death that made us stop and look at newspapers as we searched for more clues about it.

That phase passed and we were at the disbelief phase. I remember Mpeketoni part two happening and the way I greeted it with disbelief. If this had happened in a movie I would have written it off as too implausible. I would have stopped watching the series because it was asking me to suspend too much belief. I don’t mind dragons but I know human beings and I refuse to accept that a government would allow the same place to be attacked just hours after a message or reassurance. I refuse to believe this is true and had this been fiction I would not have believed it but this is not fiction. This was real. This is real. This is the blood of brothers spilling on the sand, the souls of sisters departing at a cost too dear, the deaths of dads that matter more than I can say, the murder of mothers as all we can do is look on from a distance and shake our heads in disbelief. It’s all those things.

Then it happens again and again and again. There is anger mixed in with these emotions at a certain point. The fury at the people doing what was being done. The rage at the people who can’t stop it even though we trust them too. The denial of the truth that the culture of corruption we allowed to spread and become so cancerous is a huge reason that terrorists and killers can walk amongst us with impunity. The forgetting of the myriad reasons this happens, has happened and will happen. There is a stage of impotence. Powerlessness so pervasive that it’s easy to believe that things will not change, that things cannot change and this is one of the worst stages. It’s a prelude to something so much worse. Something that I hesitate to admit feeling but feel sure that I am not the only Kenyan who has felt it. The indifference brought on by exhaustion.

I tried to keep up but I couldn’t. The number of deaths became a statistic. The frequency of failures became a pattern and it became easier to get cold and lock out the world. To lock out the pain of all the families that lost loved ones. To lock out the anger at a government that seems completely unable to protect us from what is happening. To lock out everything because it’s tiring to be sad. Its tiring to care about the people being killed and it’s hard to think about the responses of the government, the blatant discrimination, the locking up of people just because they are different than the generic idea of Kenyan, the pointing of fingers at political rivals, the everything but stopping what has been happening. Think about these things too much and I get tired. I get exhausted. I want to quit thinking about it.

The news of yet more death is greeted with a sigh and shaking of the head. The news does not shock, it does not even surprise. It simply is what it is the state of the country we live in. the way the world works. And it leaches all my empathy until there is no conflict that seems to touch me anymore. Not as violently as they would have got hold of me in the past. ISIS happened in Iraq and there were a lot of deaths. That was a footnote, a sideshow for me. I believed that it was because I had expended all my empathy for violent deaths in Kenya, with Kenyans. That may still be true. I don’t really know how the human soul works I’m not sure that it’s an ever expanding bag that I can throw all the pain of the world that I am exposed to before it becomes calloused and cold. I’m not sure that it’s able to bear these things without a rent or a tear in it that allows them to leak out and affect the way we see the world, to affect the way we feel it.

Perhaps it can’t and maybe that’s why my reaction to the newly flared Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the professionally pragmatic thought that nobody is asking my consent. That I spoke up and felt for my Palestinian brothers in conflicts past in years gone and that all of my soul searching did nothing to make things better for them. The truth seems to be that I can’t change what happens. I can’t change the fact that children on both sides will die, that women on both sides will die, that the almost never mentioned casualty of war, men, will die too. Children, women and men have died violently in Kenya too. At the hands of hate they have departed the earth with the wills of the evil misguided they have left this earth. And I felt their pain, I held on to it and now I just feel tired.

Tired of the news and tired of the necessity to give a fuck that I find in myself no matter what. I can’t feel completely human and be completely me unless I give a big, big fuck about what’s happening in my country and in my world. However the question of why we don’t care about all the Syrians and their deaths that still continue is a perfectly valid one. They are people. There are children in that conflict, women in that war, and yes even men in that mayhem but if we can be honest the fatigue seems to have gotten the best of us. And I can’t deny feeling this way and feeling horrible that I do. Feeling horrible that there is nothing I can do to change the trajectory of what is happening or that I feel there is nothing I can do whether or not this is true or not.

I feel horrible that the best piece of writing I can come up with about this is this despondent, bleak post that doesn’t remind anyone of anything or suggest any way forward. That is just at the end a selfish way to gather my thoughts, a shot in the dark to find someone who shares them so that my exhaustion doesn’t feel so lonely, at best a shot in the arm to remind myself that it can’t be this way. That exhaustion is a price worth paying to feel human, that to feel the pain of others is the only way to feel their joy too one day.

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