Monthly Archives: September 2016

Theng’a theng’a with Theng’eta: a review of Petals of Blood

Theng’a theng’a with theng’eta. That was the advertising slogan heard through the land. Those were the words that called the culled masses to the bars near and far, the song that culled the imagination and will to revolt of the people. Theng’a theng’a with thenget’a the radios blared and beautiful people in advertisements whispered while youth sung and the depressed muttered. In another version of Kenya that is really this version they sung theng’a theng’a with theng’eta.

 

Theng’eta is a mythical, though perhaps not, drink of kikuyu lore as captured in Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s Petals of Blood. About midway through the book after the first struggle has been introduced and overcome Wanja’s grandmother collects some seed and plants. She sits and brews it according to old codes that have since been lost. She lets it sit and become more potent over weeks and weeks so that it is ready for the harvest time. This Theng’eta is a drink that was outlawed by the colonial imperialists who only allowed the brewing of Muratina after they came and took away our lands all those years ago. It is the real drink, the big brother to the small thing that murats is, and murats ask anyone is not a small thing.

 

You see, theng’eta does not dull, it awakens. It does not make emotions recede but brings them to the fore. It forces you to think, and to remember. It is less an alcoholic drink than it is a hallucinogen. One that forces open third eyes and makes secrets come spilling out, a drink that insists that the truth must be spoken, that it must be seen, that it must be felt. That that is the only way we can ever come to terms with what we have lost and how we rebuild it. This is theng’eta as it is introduced a throwback to a time when the African man and woman knew themselves. Way back when we knew our gods and prayed to them. When the kikuyus faced mount Kenya and prayed to Ngai. When the luo surely face the Lake and prayed to Obongo Nyar Kalaga  for more fish to come their shores. A time when we knew who we were dating back centuries and our own tongues did not trip us and we had our stories and our songs and our gods and our beauty so sure about whom we were that we did not begrudge a little hallucinogenic trip to celebrate a good harvest.

 

And yet even this hallucination is not without its fault lines as human beings are drawn to conflict when truth is revealed about themselves or other people. Hallucinations are not always rainbows and unicorns sometimes it’s the goat-monster under the bed. As the story goes on Theng’eta’s name is appropriated and used to market a brew so dissimilar that it is an insult to what was drunk before. This kill-me-quick, as it was anointed, is a liquor used for nothing more than to drown the pain of the world, to stop us facing it. A contender for the title of opium of the masses. This is the arc described in this drink and in this book. The amazing possibility of what we could have become and the horrid reality of what we are: people who are satisfied to theng’a theng’a with thenget’a.

 

The book is about the town of Ilmorog, a fictional town that is nothing but dust and one shop. A shop run by a man named Abdullah who took up this name believing that it was a Christian one. The shop in turn left to him by an Indian who lived there before. It has a bar and to this bar comes Munira the sometimes narrator of our tale. A man who we are introduced to as godly with a bible in his hand even as he is arrested on suspicion of murder. The story goes in flashback with Munira telling us about how things came to pass in Ilmorog. He writes prison notes, a sort of memoir for the inspector who has come to see him. The inspector is a man who believes in the law the way a maths professor believes in equations. He sees his work as reduced to numbers. As necessary for order, as neither evil nor good but just necessary. We also meet Karega a former student of Munira’s who joins him on the teaching staff of the small school in Ilmorog. Karega is a passionate idealist at heart, a man grappling with the questions that post-independence gave us. He tries his best to impart to the students in his care the knowledge he believes they need as much a journey of self-discovery as it is an imparting of knowledge:

 

He made them sing: I live in Ilmorog Division which is in Chiri District; Chiri District which is in the Republic of Kenya; Kenya which is part of East Africa; East Africa which is part of Africa; Africa which is the land of the African peoples; Africa from where other African people were scattered to other corners of the world.

 

Through their lives and ours wanders Wanja.  A beautiful woman who is the only one who comes home to Ilmorog after a fashion. She becomes a bartender in Abdulla’s bar even though there is not enough business but she flashes her smile and says that this is the work of a barmaid to bring more people in or make the people who are inside drink more. The story of Wanja is a pain we behold her ups and downs, her tragedies and comebacks, her histories, secrets, peaks and valleys which are enough to leave you shredded, to leave anyone shredded.

This is a book that struggles with the idea of self-hood and of who we are. Of who we were, all of us as Africans before the four hundred years of contact with the west left us bereft and them rich. Before it destroyed our cultures and enriched theirs. Before they left and we began to forget who we could have become.

 

All the characters in the book have their secrets and they tell them as time passes by. I remember falling through the trap door in the second chapter or thereabouts. It is my hope that you know about the trapdoor because the trapdoor is something everybody should feel in their lives multiple times. It is that point in the book where it becomes real. A black hole from which you emerge breathless and disoriented looking around the world as if it’s not real. It happened as soon as Munira told us why he came to Ilmorog. Each of the main characters has a story of a journey to this place that they begin to call home and the trip for each of them is heartrending. It is sad when told once and it only becomes sadder as the book moves on as we learn more about them and who they are.

 

There is a  drought in Ilmorog. A massive drought. This is soon after independence and their MP Nderi wa Ireri has not been to their town for a long, long time. He sends them over an invitation for “chai” at Gatundu South which is more an invitation to fund his own affairs there. The people of Ilmorog wonder what they need to go talk to Kenyatta about and they are told that their tribe’s wealth is being threatened by the lake people and those aligned with the Indian Communist who was recently assassinated (there is a special pleasure for a Kenyan or a person with knowledge of Kenyan history to read this book, a jolt of recognition as Pio Gama Pinto and Tom Mboya and J.M Kariuki are assassinated, a pleasure and a pain, a deep pain.) The people of Ilmorog reply:

 

You mean some of you have already made enough wealth while we scratch the earth?

“Is that the wealth they want to steal from you?”

“Good for them if they are as poor as we are.”

 

In response to the drought they make an expedition to Nairobi to petition their leader. The journey to Nairobi itself is epic and then things sour as they are turned away by white men and black men by preachers and former revolutionaries, by all those who in the first years of independence stole afresh the capital of the new nation or held on to the capital stolen by their fathers and grandfathers. Eventually they run into a lawyer. A lawyer who has the gift of seeing what is wrong with the world. He sits down in his library with them to discuss what is going on

 

it is sad, it hurts, at times I am angry, looking at the black zombies, black animated cartoons dancing the master’s dance to perfection…The white ministers seeing defeat , now turned to sneering and jeering at the new priests. Look at these destroyers: we are going, yes, but these people will surely destroy all the canon laws…and we, who were educated in their schools, beat our breasts, we destroyers? We break the canon law? We are as civilised as you, we shall not be the ones to dismantle the monster god, and we shall prove it to you. You’ll be ashamed you once had these doubts about us….the education we got had not prepared me to understand those things: it is meant to obscure racism and other forms of oppression. It was meant to make us accept our inferiority so as to accept their superiority and their rule over us….while our people are dying of hunger, while our people cannot afford decent shelter and decent schools for their children. And we are happy, we are happy that we are called stable and civilised and intelligent.

 

I even remember that I was sitting in a courtroom as I read that particular passage. That I finished reading it and my breathing was heavy and my eyes were blurry. In its fullness it is a thing of glory, a flowering of wrongs not righted and paths trodden too hastily and wrongly. It is one of those centrepieces that a great book has. A passage that speaks a certain truth to you if only you would stop and listen to what is being said.

 

And…. there’s some sex in the book. There’s sex and there’s laughter. And there’s anticipation for sex, I find myself cheering for sex in fiction nowadays, hoping it happens because the world is not just revolution and the struggle to stay awake to the struggle. It is also beauty.

 

then they started slowly, almost uncertainly, groping toward one another, gradually working together in rhythmic search for a lost kingdom, for a lost innocence and hope, exploring deeper and deeper, his whole body aflame and tight with painful desire or of belonging. And she clung to him, she too desiring the memories washed away in the deluge of a new beginning, and he now felt this power in him, power to heal, power over death, power, power…and suddenly she carried him high on ocean waves of new horizons and possibilities in a single moment of lightning illumination, oh the power of united flesh, before exploding and swooning into darkness and sleep without words.

 

There’s also the words Kill-me-Quick which I thought my aunt had coined to described alcoholic drinks of dubious provenance but proven strength. Then there’s that passage where a woman leaves one man for another and they talk about “Coup d’état” “kugeuza serikali.” Yeah that was a Ngugi phrase.

 

And hidden in the folds I saw a character in the book from our history. His name is Chui. Chui was a student at Siriana Secondary School. He was a rebel and a revolutionary. He was the leader of the strikes and rebellions and revolts. He led a strike and was expelled, his strike coming to naught. He was left in the cold far away from all the people he had fought for. He went on exploring the world and his mind as he strayed  in constructive exile. Then there was another strike and this time the white headmaster was sent away. The students of Siriana insisted that there was only one person they could unite behind. Only one name could lead them from then on and that name was Chui. Chui came back and the first thing he did was to cut off at the legs the ones who had led the strike. He told the white teachers who he found there that they had nothing to fear, that he would make sure that the black masses who stayed respected them and their powers. That the troubles that had come before would not be repeated, would not be respected, would instead be razed to the ground along with all those who were its leaders. This Chui promised. And this Chui did, rewarding some with prefectship and the rest with the ultimate punishment. This Chui did. Oppressing the people who called him back , forgetting the blood of those who fought for his rule, forgetting the whole purpose of his rule or his exile of the fight he fought.

 

Ngugi wa Thiong’o who wrote this book that I carried with me everywhere as I read it. Ngugi who is one of our greatest writers has been detained and exiled, he has been tortured and arrested by both Kenyatta and Moi. When Kibaki won the election he came home and we broke into his home, we beat him and we raped his wife Njeri several times, we Kenyans. This man who feels for this country with all his soul, to him we did this. I don’t know what we can do to make up for this perhaps the important thing is to always ask these foulmouthed, tribal-slogan spouting, ethnic-division creating, corruption-condoning, pieces of shit we have as politicians the important question:

 

You mean some of you have already made enough wealth while we scratch the earth?

And then go to the polls geuza serikali over and over until we have a country he would be proud of.

 

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hairraising possibilities

 

A few years ago I sat on the balcony of a bar/ hotel in Nairobi. I was having drinks with some old friends and a Nigerian who was visiting the country. We started talking about the world and our conversation turned to Europe. I’m not sure why I said it or where the conversation was heading, it  probably had to do with the way they value pets so much, but I said that if they really cared about animals in Europe they wouldn’t do this thing where their food animals are penned up in a small space for all their lives. Cows that never see the grass, pigs that only wallow in their own shit if there is even space enough for that, chickens that never try their wings and so don’t achieve the enlightenment born of disappointment that comes with having wings that cannot carry you. It must be horrible for those animals I said. Then he said that we can’t spend time arguing about the relative comforts of animals when human beings are starving and dying all around us.

 

I felt wrong footed. I agreed with him that our first responsibility is to our fellow man but this wasn’t the discussion we were having was it? The smile dried on my face. It turned into a ghost and I’m really sure that a heat rushed to my cheeks. My laughs were a bit forced before I found my rhythm. This happened or some version of it. Maybe the argument we were having got lost in my head with the passage of time but all that remains is that, what he said: people first animals later.

 

I’ve thought about that day severally and I’ve thought about how I may have answered that. My answer would have acknowledged first and foremost that human beings are the most important recipients of our aid, our worry and our work. That of course no human being should suffer. But perhaps this is not a zero-sum game. We can’t focus everything on just the worst and then elevate that before we move on to the next. This world (and here I would have lapsed into hyperbole, leaving my point on the ground in an attempt to make it from the sky) this world needs transcendence too. We need to stop pain but at the same time we need to create beauty. We could have all the musicians toiling the earth, all the writers only focused on academic research, all the painters making greenhouses but such a drab earth would soon leech us of the joy that makes life worth it. The different facets of life that are arrayed before us need to be attacked at the same time. Making sure that every child in Germany can access university if they wish to should be done at the same time as making sure every child in Kenya can access secondary school. The fact that the Kenyan need is admittedly greater should not stop us from seeing to the German need. The fact that the human need is more important should not stop us from seeing to the animal need

 

This world we live in is not ours alone I may have said. We are not the only ones who live and die and suffer and grieve on it. Spending time extending compassion to them does not reduce the compassion we have for our fellow human beings. I would have told him my theory of love which is on one side an indictment of monogamy. My theory that the more love we give the more we have to give. It is not a finite resource like water. Have a child and you love it with all you heart. Have ten and you don’t love all ten with all your heart. You love each of the ten with all of your heart. It multiplies as you extend it. The same could be said of compassion. Worrying about these animals that are suffering doesn’t make me worry less about the human beings who are suffering. It gives me a capacity for greater empathy. This is a muscle that if you use  it becomes stronger. That’s what I would have told him.

 

This last week South Africa made the news again a story about a  school telling its black students that they needed to straighten their hair if they wanted to be accepted as neat students. They were told their afros were dirty. No dreadlocks allowed. Nothing that naturally happens to black hair except being shorn could be worn to school. I can remember when my cousins and sisters would get blow-dried at home in days gone by. The sound of that loud gun. The heat that they applied to their hair. I sat under it once and it was horrible. Then they’d put all these chemicals on their hair to tease it out, to straighten it, to make it look like a white person’s hair naturally looks. And I have no problem with a person going through this if it’s what they want to do. Self expression is important to human beings and the freedom to do what you will with your hair is also important. The problem comes when a person feels like they have no choice. When they have to hurt themselves, or twist themselves to fit a notion of hair that is not who they are, and not who their hair wants them to be. I am woefully unqualified to write about black women’s hair. I do know however that the plight of my black sisters when it comes to hair and the dignity that controlling it can donate is the number 1 hair plight.

 

But, the point of my argument above was that the number 2 plight can be looked at while the number 1 one is still being fixed. It doesn’t take anything away from that. In fact in extending the same lens to my black brothers and me there is even a possibility for more compassion for black women and their hair.

 

I’ll tell you this for free and the price of having read all the words that came before, I hate what society insists I should do with the hair on my head. I feel like I was born hating it. When I was a little child and forming my first memories I remember being taken for a shave. We used to shave in Kibera after church. I’d be taken down past the railways and to the place where I would sit. Usually just before school I’d have my hair grown to a length I liked and then it would have to be cut. I didn’t want it but being a child is living in a dictatorship, nobody really cared what I wanted. Then I’d start crying as he’d shave me because my hair was going and I didn’t want it to go. I loved it just that much. It would fall onto the towel and tumble to the floor and I’d be crying. They’d tell me boys don’t cry over things like this and still I’d cry. I’d cry and mucous would run down my nostrils. I’d cry and not wipe it because as a child sometimes this is the only voice you have. How much you cry and how you cry. Even then I understood that it’s important to show your disapproval of the things you are forced to do. It matters not if this changes anything but people must know. So I’d cry as I was being shaved and multiple times I’d carry the hair away.

 

And this was my childhood, being forced to cut my hair. All the damn time. Not wanting to but having to. Then in university when I should have let it go I fell into peer pressure and shaved it because I thought girls liked that. I see pictures of me then and my heart drops a bit. I feel sad for the child I was and for whoever he was trying to be. Losing all these moments so that what? A girl somewhere would bat her eyelids at him, hold his hands, let him take off her top and feel the moistness between her thighs and finally allow him to have her, consume him for herself? Well I don’t blame him really even now sex trumps principles that i would dearly like to live by.

 

In 2012 I didn’t shave at all. My hair grew gloriously. The whole year it heaped on and on. That was my best hair year. But towards the end of that year I was robbed and my head hacked to pieces. I had to be shaved so that thirteen stitches could be sewn on my scalp ending that year of the glory. So now when I shave I can’t help but think of that. I also think of a cousin of mine who died a while back. His beard used to grow so I’d take him to the barber’s every Sunday. He’d sit and let them shave him. When I close my eyes and even when I don’t I can almost see him right there sitting as his beard was shaved. His eyes closed, his head shining bald, his reflection in the mirror. Even the colour of the towels remains so I see it too, blue. And so when I sit in a barbershop those are the two or maybe three associations I have of it. I have the instinctive hate that I grew up with. I have the heavy sadness that sits in the place of people we lost. I have the memory of my trauma. I really don’t like those places. I want to be in and out. I don’t want a massage while there. I don’t want you to wash my hair. I don’t want anything at all that makes me stay there longer than twenty minutes. I hear so much about these claw things that Kenyan men are about ready to give up sex for and I can’t join in those discussions because nothing makes me want to sit there. And when I am done I want a cigarette because there are few things that bother me as much as a barbershop.

 

There is bias and bile in me when it comes to this topic. Now I shave four times a year. It is four times too many. Perhaps my unique experiences have soured me to the beauty of a barbershop, made it impossible for me to be objective. That’s my point though it’s my hair I shouldn’t have to be objective. Nobody should when it comes to their own hair it should be preferential and as subjective as possible.

 

There’s this cut that we black men get when we shave. That shape, that line at the front of the head. I get it too out of peer pressure but it hurts. It doesn’t seem to hurt anyone else but it hurts me. I look at this shaver and to me it looks like twenty little knives hooked up to electricity and these little knives are going at my scalp. They are digging into it. There’s a sound I can hear as the motor whirrs. The barber stands over me and shaves my forehead, then the turns the machine over so the knives are perpendicular to my forehead, he is scratching me with the twenty electrically motored knives I am paying him to hurt me and I close my eyes and I hope for it to stop all I want it to do is to stop. And every three months I take myself to experience this pain. Even that is too long in the eyes of most people. All the time i hear pleas to shave my hair, it’s too long, why do you want it that long, keep it short. All the time. Is this what happens with women too the endless haranguing to stylize it? It must be I’ve hear my sister go through it with her hair. Be told it doesn’t look good , that she should perm it or relax it or chemicalise it or whatever else is needed to make it not look like that. Whatever it does it shouldn’t look like that.

 

I have to comb my hair too. I have to comb it every day. My hair is hard. It’s steel hard. By the second month it can only be combed wet. So I comb it wet. I have five different sets of combs for all stages of hair development. I use them all in the three months before I go back to the barber. The scratcher and the fine tooth comb and the spaced tooth comb and the afro comb and the comb that’s even more spaced tooth comb than the other one.  I actually don’t mind that much combing my hair. By the 1st week of the third month I’m wincing every time I do it though. The hair sheds everywhere. It’s painful but when I comb it in that last month there’s a certain texture it gets. This texture reminds me of this blanket I used to use when I was a child. It was black and red. At the edges it wasn’t seamed, there were fine threads flying out and I loved touching it as I fell asleep. My hair when long and combed reminds me of that. It takes me back to childhood when I was loved and everything was easy and happiness was that blanket and life was good, perfectly good. (except for the trips to the barbershop of course.)

 

 

It can’t stay neat though. By neat I mean it can’t be this ridiculous idea of neatness which is a lawn with no grass peeking out. Where did this come from? I don’t understand where this came from. The fact that my hair should look like a helmet. The idea that I should not be allowed to touch my hair, to ruffle it as I think to pick at it when I want to. My hair must remain a helmet if I want it long. How though? What kind of robot am I that I wouldn’t want to touch it and be transported as if by magic to that room I shared with my brother and sister all those years ago?

 

I want my hair neat and I want it untidy and to be able to choose but mostly I want it long. Men are not allowed to have long hair in this society though. Not really unless you can have the helmet and even the helmet is frowned upon by some. Boys don’t even have the option. Even if they cry so hard that mucous falls into their mouth and they drink it down as a sign of their defiance their loving mothers will sigh and make sure it is all cut down. This isn’t as obviously insidious as what happens with the women since theirs is clearly an approximation of another race’s hair. What about ours though? The cut at the front is different isn’t it? Well of course it is. What about the compactness? No one else has hair like that do they? What about the length? Shaved to the skin….only the skinheads do that.

 

I don’t know where the cut came from but it is quite clearly a repudiation of our natural hairlines. I can’t imagine my ancestors making sure that their hair was cut just right. The compactness though. That is plainly unnatural. My hair does not want to be compact. It wants to be spiky, it wants to be bumpy, it does not understand this shape I wrestle it into every morning and it tries it’s merry best to wrestle back to the truth of what it is by the evening. My hair sprouts in gatherings. It is thick in some places and clear to the scalp in others. Since it is nappy and not silky like a white or asian person’s hair it doesn’t lie over these holes naturally. While its short you can see them, these greengram plantations on my scalp. When it is long it’s a forest, maybe jungle is the better word, it si a tangle of hair that refuses compactness that finds that unnatural. These other people, the Caucasians and the Asians they let their hair be as it is. Or more accurately they can let their hair be and not be looked at as if they are madmen. But if I was to demand the same courtesy, the courtesy to have it as it wants to be I would not be able to practise my chosen profession. People on the street would walk to the other side. And I wonder what it is about me looking like I actually look without the benefit of combing through my hair that is so ugly, is so hateful. The other option open to us is for me the worst, shave it all. Shave it all. Don’t have any hair. Admit and accept that it was a bad jape when they put it on your head they being the godhead or the years of evolution. They did not know what they were doing when they gave you something unruly and ugly. Ugly. Ugly. Ugly.

 

 

This is what it comes down too doesn’t tit. That the sight of my hair to my society is ugly. If not physically ugly it is the sign of a lout, an indecent man, a robber, a thief. A person you would not trust. This is what I am told about my hair every day.

 

This is what we tell our sons and our nephews and our cousins. This is what we tell all men in this society that their hair scares people. It marks them for outcasts as surely as the sign of Cain. How is this right? How is this accepted? Why are the same people who are outraged by what happened in South Africa unable to see it happens here all the time? That men are vilified for wanting to express anything with their hair that is not short. And if not short is unnaturally compact. And even when both is lined, fenced behind that line. It’s about the option for me. Some men love it and let them have it but what about the rest of us? Those of us who want to be as we were born. Those of us who feel that the unruliness and length of our hair speaks for who we are and who we want to be? What about us? Don’t we deserve self-determination too? I firmly believe so. Don’t you?

 

 

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