Monthly Archives: February 2016

scenes from meru

There was a Saturday night in my first weeks in Meru when I said fuck it I need a drink despite the hole in my pocket where my wallet used to be. I left the house headed to this keg joint nearby where I could drink on the cheap and not have the Samson treatment on my eyes. I left the apartment and began walking. There is a dearth of artificial light and in my first days I used to walk with the flashlight on my phone turned on. This night though there was a full moon. The light flooded the earth. To my left there were trees and some houses. The moon-light turned them into something out of a dream or a fantasy book. The moon’s light is more silver than white. The greens of the leaves turn almost black. The browns of the trees can only just be made out. There were shadows from the light. Not the normal daytime shadows though, these barely existed, wisps of shadows and they didn’t stretch too far out. The landscape looked layered and stacked. Darkness shot through with streams of silver, even the dark wasn’t black. It looked almost blue.

The main method of transportation around town is taxis. Personal cars into which people jump and are squeezed together two in the front and four in the back. Comfort is the last thing that is expected on these rides. I remember once seating in front but in the middle and we were two big guys so space was negligible. The driver insisted he could make it and every time he shifted gears the plastic would dig into me. Dig deep and hurt heaps. A bone massage. I feel like I spend all my time opening the windows on these things. Turning the dial or pressing down on the switch when it’s modern. Once someone picked me up without waiting in line, I guess he wasn’t allowed to pick people up from there. He told me if there was a fight he could trust me to help him. I smiled uneasily. He then took out a knife from its sheath and said he would slit anyone who tried anything. The knife was sharp. With a handle long enough for proper grip and too short to act as a fulcrum when cutting tomatoes, meat, onions and all the other things a nice boy like me imagined knives were for. This knife was for fighting. It was for stabbing and stabbing and stabbing again. A combat knife. The kind whose metal drinks up blood and begins to gleam more if its human haemoglobin it’s drinking up. The kind of knife a hero in a moon-lit landscape would need.

An old man in court was sitting talking to police in Maua. He was really old. He said he had worked in a colonial farm back in the days of slavery. He hated the white man. Hated his goods and hated his technology. Refused to use a phone said that if someone had something to say to him they could come see him in person. He was asked why he hadn’t joined the Mau Mau case for some compensation from the British government. What Mau Mau? Was his response. He went on to tell us that there were no Mau Mau left in Kenya. That Jomo Kenyatta had acted to finish them all off killing all the remnants of that proud rebellion. In a deal with the British that we will never be fully privy to he had wiped out the most organised armed resistance to their rule as soon as he became president. They asked him next about Christianity. If he hated white people so much what about Jesus. All the arguments sprung to my mind. The fact that Jesus was not white but Israeli. A Middle Eastern man. Perhaps even a black man but not white. The old man said that God is not white he was just born amongst white people. To him the concept of the deity was so grand, so big that it was ridiculous to try and assign a thing like race to him. God is not white, God is not male, God is God. This is the message in the bible that we read over and over. Another old man once approached a burning bush and received the message “I am who I am” and since then it has been forgotten and misinterpreted by millions and by me. It took this old man to remind me that if there is a God he is none of the things we are. He simply is who he is.

From just outside my place I can see a range of hills. When I have to get up really early there is a red sun blazing in the distance. Sometimes this is hidden behind trees, the hills not the sun. Once I woke up to find mist everywhere, a fog had descended. Visibility of a few metres. Like Ngai had used the crater in Mount Kenya as a bong. Other times it rains. It fucking floods. Out of nowhere the taxis have laid carton down so that you can step on it. Then after the rain it’s so hot I’m sweating at 8 in the morning. There are times of cold. Cold so biting its felt in the bone, not the skin. This cycle of weather can take place in a week. It’s ridiculous.

I had every intention of learning the language but it’s difficult. It’s difficult because everyone speaks swa and English. I can survive without kimeru though it irks me when people lapse into it in conversation and immediately start laughing. Everyone talks it, everywhere.

I’ve been bawled over by beauty a couple of times. A girl will pass by and all I’ll want to do is get up and follow her. One of them got into one of those taxis and the driver drove off so fast I’m sure he had designs on showing her his “knife” if she was willing. The beauty demands more than one look. It demands more than a glance. It demands being drunk in. Just like watching a sunset, the beauty here sometimes deserves a minute or two of silent contemplation at the wonders of nature.

At work I have occasion to mingle with older people a lot more. I’ve begun noticing that with age their eyes go blue. It’s like the colour in the irises begins to fade away. So that there is a glassy bowl surrounding the black. It’s not a straight demarcation, the colours bleed into each other and it’s beautiful. When they talk to me I get distracted by their eyes. I want to keep them talking so I have an excuse to keep looking, to keep staring.

There’s a guy who sells me mutura. He makes these huge thick sausages. One cut almost fills you up. He cuts pili pili into it so that it has an extra tang. It’s wonderful. The other day I was weekday drinking and needed some of it. He was out of stock so I went to the fancy fast food place. The place that makes pizza and amazing garlic fries, a place called bradegate. As I waited for my order I went to the toilet and found it was a pit latrine. This place is flawlessly classy. The kind of middle class haunt that we aspired to in university (nowadays people I know are giddy about art caffe opening all night, art caffe!! My age mates done sold out) and in the back is a pit latrine. I have to go on a date there just so when she goes to the loo I know she squatted.

This morning i stood just outside my door. My apartment is on the second floor and to the distance there are hills. This was one of the sunnier days so that even though it was 7:43 the sun was out in force. The light was almost white and as I looked off to the range of hills they looked like they were disappearing in a fog made of sunlight. All that stood of them was a faint outline of one against the other and that one against the sky. They were ephemeral, ghosts of hills, see-through but not quite. There is a tree that seems almost level with them but that’s just because it’s closer, at the top of the tree there are these red flowers. Blood red, especially against the backdrop that seemed washed of colour. I stood there for a while and then I left for work.


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The second accident of the day was much less dramatic. The road between Meru and Chuka, a town that I was going to for court is beautiful. The sides of the winding, hilly road are forested with the burst of vegetation that screams Meru . During that week there had been an infusion of white butterflies into the landscape. Everywhere I looked these white insects flew about. They crossed the road in their hundreds so that the whole way we were escorted by fluttering bursts of white. Almost like snowdrops except much more alive, their wings moving back and forth and their path irregular. Then we came to one of the many, many bumps that litter the road between Meru and Nairobi discouraging the raging and reckless driving that Meru drivers are known for. Miraa waits for no man and its delivery is serious, swift work. As we navigated the bump a police vehicle was doing the same, just as the matatus made it to the end the Defender’s nose bumped against it and against the place where I had been sitting.


It was a tiny nudge but a Landrover Defender is a real vehicle. It has metal nails in it. Its strong evocative of a buffalo or a rhino. Any contact reminds you that whatever it is you are in is nothing more than a tin of aluminium and makes you wonder why any manufacturer would think this was safe on the same road as that. I sat shivering in the back as the driver went to complain, saying the accident wasn’t his fault. We were near a traffic stop and the cops there came to have a look too. I had no faith in the system and I knew that this matatu was going to get hauled in immediately. I mean even if we were right that car still represented the violent side of the government. Somehow though we were let go and I went back to shivering in the back. I was just beginning to get back some of my faith in the law of the road when we came to another traffic stop. The matatu was stopped. The scratch at its side was pointed at. We were all ordered out and into another matatu. The driver I am sure had a long day ahead of him. The bribes he would have to pay were going to be huge and there was of course the loss of a whole day’s income due to the incident. Plus he would have to pay to have it fixed. Not the system, he couldn’t get the system fixed, just the car but you see it was a Defender that hit us.


I was shivering because I was sick. It had come upon me slowly and in stages as disease does, sending forth its sentries before it sullied and spoiled the body of its host. One day I had a headache and the need to sleep. So I slept a whole evening and night through. Another day I got home feeling like my skin had absorbed all the heat the sun was giving out. Plus I was exhausted. Plus I was shivering. So with all this heat I had snuck between my duvet and my couch. Played some music so that I was distracted and shook and shook until I was sweating and then I had finally slept. Another day it was all of these plus I had no energy in me. I did that stupid thing men do when they think that their bodies will be fine and put off a hospital visit.


This went on for a couple of days. I would get in bed with the shivers shaking me and the fever fucking me up and think about what would happen when I died. It was always practical things. How would the people at home know, who would the caretaker call first when she found my body rotting in my bedroom? Who would that person then call? How would this information reach my family? Just the practical stuff. Then I’d take this pill that I had for the headache pounding away at me, a painkiller and in a few hours I would feel ok. Sickly but ok. So I knew I wasn’t dying, nothing that can be stopped by a painkiller can possibly kill you off right? This was until a Saturday came and I was unable to move the whole day and night through.



I went to hospital on Monday and got some drugs. The doctor told me he couldn’t find anything wrong with me as he wrote my prescriptions, treating my symptoms as he had no idea what the root cause was. So I popped my pills and took my bed-rest. Bed- rest sucks. There’s nothing you can do but lie there. And sleep or try to sleep. I tossed and turned, my back ached because I thought I should listen to music as I slept. I would wake up in sweats and throw off my duvet for a minute. I would wake up desperately needing to go for a piss but feeling so weak that I would just lie there, a beached whale for a few minutes. Telling myself to get up and go because I had to and then waking up and weakly walking there. Taking the necessary piss and half-crawling back to bed.


For half of Monday, all of Tuesday and all of Wednesday I suffered through the vagaries of sick-sleep. The constant sweat and tiredness of it. The strain on my spine. The intermittent hunger that my disease allowed me as well as the exhaustion that meant I couldn’t do anything for myself. Wednesday I had a court date in Chuka. For those 2 days I had been able to read. Reading was my great solace, my only comfort. For some time I was able to get out of myself and be somebody else. I read a book by Toni Morrison called Paradise that was a balm to my soul and my body. That woman is a god not, a goddess because gods don’t have genders though all of them surely have agendas. While reading the heat or the cold or whatever it was would sometimes affect my eyes until they hurt. Closing them resulted in hot tears streaming down. It felt like somebody had boiled them out of me.


On that Tuesday at around 3 p.m. the fever struck. It struck hard, I couldn’t really walk, I was hunched over in cold to preserve the heat. Blindly I made my way to my bed and lay there waiting for it to subside. Unable to read, unable to think. Hunched in a comma. It broke at around 6 and then I slept. Wanting to wake up the next day, be done with court and go back to hospital. In the middle of that slumber I had the most distinct of those fever dreams. I was in my primary school and we were learning something or other. The sun was exploding though. The fiery heart of the sun was getting closer to the earth and it was so hot I could feel my blood boiling. The fire was inside of me and inside everything and there I was running around the primary school looking for god knows what. Then I woke and I could feel the heat of the dream leak out of me. I lay in bed trying to get my breath and immediately starting to shiver again. The shivers were bad. I had to breathe through my mouth just to control them. I hoped for another few hours in bed when my alarm began ringing and curses were sent to whoever was in control for not granting me more time.


Hunched like a comma I made my way to take a shit. I tried to read as I shat but my hands shook. They shook and they shook. I couldn’t see what was in front of me. I couldn’t imagine pushing anything out of me. All that existed in life at that moment was the shake. The sun had not yet risen and darkness peered into me like the cat that I had woken up to find staring at me during one of my fitful naps. I turned on the shower to find that the hot water was not working. For all of half a minute I considered a cold shower and then slapped that idea out of my mind. Still shaking, still weak I poured water into a sufuria and took it to the gas.



There was a moment when I stood hunched with cold metal in my hands and the night surrounding me that I thought with crystal clarity this is how people die, alone and far away from home.


I made it to the stage to Chuka in time to see the first accident of the day. There is a road that curves out of Meru and it was this one that the matatus was waiting on to fill up before it went. From opposite us into Meru town there came a boda boda and from behind us some kind of four wheel drive. The boda boda was in the middle of the road or it had come some distance onto the oncoming lane. The car was on the right lane or it had veered a little into the road. I can’t say. I don’t know how anyone ever can it all passes so fast. My slow moment came between the point  when collision was inevitable and when it actually did happen. I could see all the moving parts of an accident assemble but I couldn’t believe it would actually happen. There would be a last minute change of direction instead there was the crunch of vehicle on vehicle. There would be a near-miss instead there was one body following the trajectory of the boda as the other went sideways, safer because all he broke was an ankle. There was a chance that this would just pass. That this would not be an incident. That this would not be an accident. But sometimes the disease has taken over the body too much for anything to change. So what we had was one man lying in agony clutching at his ankle. We had a motorcycle wrecked. We had another man stepping out of his vehicle and quickly making calls. We had another man far outside my field of vision. The real injured, the almost dead. Thrown too far away by the impact for me to see him.  The one whose life had been changed by what happened on that day. And there was me shaking in my suit enough to catalyze an autumn  and thinking grimly this is how people die, alone and far away from home.


I made it to court and I made it back to Meru without collapsing. There were even moments when I had my hand outside the matatus soaking up sun for the fever and my head in its shade with the wind blowing in that felt almost blissful. The walk to the clinic from the stage unmanned me though. I walked ploddingly. Fighting desperately against gravity. Giving myself morale. Before almost breaking apart as I crashed through the clinic’s doors.


I’m better now. I have no idea what happened to the guy on the boda boda. And the doctor still has no idea what happened to me.


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a sign



I’ve seen this poster on facebook a number of times and I’ve never shared it. I’ve never felt it. In my life this has not been something that people have seriously done for a long time. Sure people’s mannerisms of speech are made fun of all the time but this is usually pointed towards mother-tongue influence, or local accents or all the other politically correct names for shrubbing that there are. Nobody really makes fun of anyone’s broken English do they?


You know what happens though and happens all the time? People make fun of my broken Dholuo. It’s an abiding and deep shame of mine that I can’t fluently speak Dholuo. My vocabulary is not up to scratch, my accent is lousy, and my attempts at speech are marked with numerous hesitations. Usually I can understand pretty well what someone is saying unless of course they are from a different part of Luoland than either my father (Gwassi near Homa Bay and famous for Mbadi) or my mother (Seme near Kisumu and famous for Lupita) then they speak with a slight accent and it makes me miss it completely.


Whenever I’m in Nyanza my Dholuo improves. There really is something about being immersed in a language that makes speech easier. But, this only works if I try. So I try. I speak in a funny accent, I don’t have the words for everything and even when I have the words I have to search sometimes, my sentence structure is shot to shit. I’ll say it instead of I many, many times because all that comes to mind is the verb. Basically, broken Luo.  Devastated and shattered. A language that has been in a horrible car accident where the bones are tied up with so much wire it (instead of I?) can’t walk past fridge magnets(which incidentally do they still exist? I haven’t seen one for such a long time.)


Anyway when this happens people laugh. Or they used to. They make fun of me. They decide to switch to Swahili or English to make my life easier and all I want to do is speak Luo so that I can get a better grasp. The reactions though are so disheartening. Except when drinking. Drinking allows you to access a part of your mind that you don’t usually. It lets you dance and it allows you your hidden facility of speech. I communicate so much better in Dholuo when drunk than when sober.



Back to the facebook poster from up there. A part of it felt like it needed to be inverted. I don’t make fun of anyone’s broken English but my broken Luo is made fun of. This should be inverted. The second part shouldn’t though. Not just because a lot of people speak English and Kiswahili and Dholuo without a problem but also because nobody should be given a pass in not speaking their mother tongue just because they can speak the language of the colonizers international communication. So I know I should just get off my ass and learn Dholuo but I live in Meru now and if it didn’t adhere in Nairobi the chances here are incredibly low.



Anyway I saw a post from a facebook friend of mine, a Spaniard. She had shared the poster and was decrying her countrymen who actually do make fun of people who speak broken English. She spoke about her experience in places where English is a native tongue (Kenya e.g.) and that in such places the speakers would attempt to help you learn it. She also spoke about how hard it was to speak English at home, that people didn’t respect it unless there was an American accent decrying a Spanish one (forgetting that accents are usually pretty dope they give character to words I mean we even call what people in England speak with an English accent) and that this made her give up learning for a few years.



I learned two things from reading what she said. The first was that naiveté never really goes away. I mean, I consider myself very cynical about political and corporate motives and I still thought that facebook poster was aimed at me in my little African country. Forgetting that the profiles can only be changed at the click of a button for France and star wars.


The second was that we always forget that other people go through the same problems we have. We imagine that things can only happen to us or to people who seem like us. It never once crossed my mind that people being made fun of for speaking broken English could be a problem all over the world. That it could touch the Europeans and the South American, the Asians, the Russians, the Chinese, the Indians, the Pakistanis. Reading this made me realise that, of course it could. That the world is not made up of just Kenya. That there are problems that may seem local but that all of us suffer through.


I had a dream one Sunday. I took a nap that began at 7 p.m. and then I needed to wake up because I hadn’t eate. I struggled to wake up and get off of my couch. I didn’t want to because sleep felt so silky right then. I didn’t want to go through the hassle of waking up and eating a meal when I had so few hours left until the next day, a Monday. I fought through all this and got up, I went to my sister’s room and was pointed towards some snacks-breakfast cereal types, crunchy and chocolaty.


Then I woke up for real in my house in Meru battling all the emotions I felt in my dream-it was a Sunday, I was tired, I didn’t want to go through the hassle of preparing and eating a meal. It was weird. The other thing is that whenever I dream of home I dream about the house I grew up in which has been demolished. I never dream about the house where we moved after that. It’s strange. Dreams are strange. They can’t fully be communicated to anybody since they are one of the last purely personal experiences. Nobody is with you while you dream. Nobody else feels what you feel. Just like pain we have no way of knowing if people feel dreams the same way. Almost everyone has them. Almost everyone goes off on a purely individual journey when they sleep that they can’t consciously remember and if they do they can’t fully explain. Our experiences change us and dreams do too, so how difficult is it for any of us to understand the other when even the simple fact that people speak broken English all over the world was something I was oblivious to? Despite the fact that I have had the good fortune to travel.



It worries me. But I was in court today and there was a deaf women testifying. They brought out a sign language translator. This made me wonder whetherl sign language is in any language. Is there English sign language and Chinese sign language and Spanish sign language? There probably is even if I don’t think there is any need to have all of these but the world does insist on division and hey, maybe there is. Perhaps sign language developed organically in different places as people tried to express themselves so that like normal language people gestured it differently everywhere.



Anyway she signed to the translator and the translator signed back. There were times that she would look at the translator signing and follow his gestures with such joy. Her head nodding along and then she would sign back happily. They would have a loooong conversation that ended with her giggling into her hands and then her translator would say “yes she is.” It happened so many times we could see so clearly that these two were talking about other things in addition to the questions and answers. The magistrate couldn’t say anything though because perhaps Kenyan sign language really is that convoluted. While watching this exchange there were numerous times I almost laughed because of the pure joy of the conversation. I felt that I could almost understand that something funny was going on and the part of me that responds to that kicked in ready to share the joke.



Then she began testifying. She’s deaf but not mute. I imagine though that she was born deaf because she wasn’t trying to make the sounds for words; however when she got emotional sounds would escape her, a grunt, a high pitched sound of anger. Gestures would become more frantic as the sounds also increased in volume and frequency. It was clear from her gestures that she was accusing the man in the dock of beating her. It was clear that she was angry with him. I was capable of understanding her, of figuring out what she had to say I’m pretty sure everyone in the courtroom was.



There’s a TV show I’m currently rewatching called Deadwood. It’s a great show and I highly recommend it. There’s a Chinese character (it’s set in the days of the Wild West and the American gold rush) who can’t speak English save for two words: Sweangeen (a bastardization of one of the character’s names) and cocksucker (the most commonly spoken word in camp.) he and Sweangen talk to each other using this limited vocabulary. They have conversations and discussions; they come to terms and agreements. The creator of the show said in an interview that he was interested in communication as a sort of electric current. His thesis being that people could communicate to each other if they wanted to bad enough. That if the need was there and the person being spoken to sufficiently receptive than the message could pass despite a lack of shared language.



I felt it in that courtroom today. I can’t sign but if asked, without benefit of translation what that witness had wanted to say I would have.  So perhaps all my fears about us not being able to understand each other in the world are unfounded. They are based on not trying hard enough. And, maybe every day more of the world is opened up to me like when my friend on facebook gave her explanation to the post.

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