“She’s 68 but she says she’s 54”- Bob Dylan explaining why he ain’t gonna work for Maggie’s farm no more.
“She ain’t a country yet but we’re gonna try one more time”-Anon
Amidst the roiling repetition of peace torn to pieces by protest and police I had formed a shifty routine that took me past the places that they passed. Between the major seats of commerce and justice lies a patch of land made over in grass and the sound of birds, crowned by the glory of a pond without a name, offering respite to those without a lane, and named after that thing that we all fight and wish for: Uhuru Park.
The trade I ply requires me to walk between these two places a number of times in a good week. First at about 8:30 in the morning and later whenever my business in court has been concluded. The first time I pass to the left of it and, for the longest time could look into that road that cuts right through it and tell what kind of day it was going to be. This could be seen by the number of police milling around. Constant military-type parades were held there every morning. A briefing, an inspecting, an ordering of the troops. Troops decked in green, totting truncheons, grabbing guns, protected by suits made of rubber patched over their uniforms so severally that they put me in mind of Tony Stark. They commandeered vehicles that looked out of a Batman movie, we all know Tony needs nothing more than his suit. I’d see their numbers and remember the promises from the other side and know it was going to be that kind of day.
Later on I’d go down to Uhuru Park after lunch in order to grab a smoke, after the cigarette I’d walk down the bridge in front of the pond to the benches littered under the shade of the trees and read a few pages of the book I had with me at the time. After this I’d walk to parliament road just across the street. Uhuru Highway at the time was a locale of great strife. There was always the smouldering remains of teargas, the running shrieks of the frightened and the happy exclamations of the excited, the proud boasts of those on one side (tunalipa ushsuru na wanatuambia teargas imeisha?) the weariness of those caught in the middle (biashara inaumia) and the sentiments of those leading the other side expressed in thumps of metallic balls falling all across the road and hissing in anger and warning, after all this, when the protesters had dispersed and the police moved on there would be an almost inexpressible calm. The quiet of night would steal into the day, the silence of suburbs descending on the chaos of town, and an interval of peace like that place never hears.
It was here that I bent down one day and picked up a hat. It was lying forlorn and forgotten in a ditch. The recent property of one of the dispersed. Its colours were the black of our peoples, the green of our lands, and the white of our peace stained and strained through with the red of our blood. It was what google tells me is an ascot hat. In Kenya, once upon a time, it would have been known as a “Raila” hat because of his propensity to appear in public with one pulled over his head. In recent years though it has become the trademark of people who in general would want nothing to do with him, old, Kikuyu businessmen, with their brown coats, love of meat and toothpicks, and unconscious propping up of this one son of Kenya.
I felt guilty though. This flag I was wearing upon my head wasn’t mine and perhaps I had deprived another of something important and sentimental to them, perhaps I had stolen. This year though has given no dearth of chances to act differently “next protest.” Some time later I was walking down parliament road. The teargas was bouncing up and down, people were running here and there, I was standing near the mausoleum of the founding father when I saw a lady run near KICC and in her running drop her handbag. She kept running.
I crossed the road, stooped to pick it up, went back to the place I came from where some men in the uniforms of the disciplined forces stood. I told them what had happened, they asked me what they should do.
“Mimi nikiwa shule niliambiwa nikiokota kitu yenye si yangu nipeleke kwa polisi.”
Turns out they were from the army, despite this they advised me on how to help. We found a phone in the bag, scrolled down number after number until someone was found who could pick it up. They then told me to leave it at the gate of the mausoleum. I knocked there and was answered by men dressed in red blazers who took the bag and placed it under the protection of the ghost with a promise that it would return to its owner.
In the middle of that concerted effort to return property a policeman ran ahead of us, he knelt with a launcher on his shoulder, and let fly a canister, it flew white and wide and landed inside parliament.
As many indices as we can individually claim knowledge of will tell us it has been a bad year for Kenya. The businessmen have been vocal, the human rights activists have been vocal, the students have been home, the good people forlorn. We had another election or two this year and the streets ran red.
If anything proclaims the failure of ourselves as a country it is this, the streets run red while the ballots are read. It has been 54 years of independence and we have not figured out how to politic without it ending up in the morgue. We have had 6 multi-party presidential elections over the last quarter of a century and with each one seen bereavement and death. We haven’t learned at all, or enough from any of these occasions of slaughter it seems. The worst thing that can possibly happen happens for someone and the only consolation we can give ourselves is that it didn’t happen to us. I will speak for myself, the powers of privilege and the safety that having a certain amount of money can bring have kept me safe from dying, or knowing anyone who died, or living in a place where people are dying. My routine has not been shaken except for the large number of public holidays me and my house have emerged unscathed but this doesn’t mean our country has.
This, as every, election the spectre of violence has eclipsed hopes for nationality. The reality of it, the reality of it over and over again for months now has meant that this, as every election year, is a year for the red of the black to soak into the green earth and, tear the white asunder.
The Presidency has not hidden its intentions behind claims of overzealousness or mistake, after all according to its head the police did a great job during the election period, this despite obvious excesses involving the deaths of infants and children, an instance of invasion of the University, and the complete inability to find rubber bullets anywhere. Those are the sins on the one side.
It took me a while to see the sins on the other because…if they weren’t murder what did it matter what they were. Then two of my friends recalled to my mind a lesson from the life of King David, he who saw the woman of his dreams from atop a roof, he who ordered that her husband be put in a place where hails of arrows would surely find their way, he who tried to sleep with an easy conscience telling himself that this was not murder. Even I, who am hopelessly naïve about these things know that a protest results in death. Could the far more politically astute opposition leader, a man whose illusions about the heart and actions of man were forcefully removed in the bowels of nyayo house, not know?
And so wave after wave of death and its demands have attended upon us.
It hurts for our dear Kenya to have such poor choices as the commander of the invading army and a King David overcome by lusts he cannot control to choose from and yet this is where we found ourselves.
Our belief that protests shouldn’t end in blood hasn’t stopped that happening and if we could believe that more protests could put an end to this, ok, but we can’t and the insanity of doing this again and again
This land is our land, our land all. It houses within it forty something odd ethnic groups. As varied from each other as their burial cultures will tell us. We have both stoic acceptance and a touch of fatalism in the eye of the great equalizer, and screams sent to rent the sky accompanied with sobs that shake the earth’s bowels.
We have pride in our achievements whatever they may be. We have the lake that gave rise to the Nile and a mountain that is a resting place of gods. We have the promise of a shelter, a promise that requires us all to work towards it or lose it.
On this her 54th year talks of breaking Kenya apart have been had. Secession has been talked about, very seriously by some. People have been arrested for their stances on it, anger has been fomented and shouting matches have been had.
I am not for secession, if only because it would put paid to this tradition of writing a blogpost every Jamhuri Day. But I think it’s important to talk about this house we all live in. A century and some decades past a group of Europeans took a map, a ruler, and their balls and carved into many and varied pieces our home of Africa. As far as colonialism goes we got the good guys, the British for all their faults were gentler than the French, the Portugese, and the Germans. This is not an extollation of their virtue but an acknowledgement of the excess of the vices of their brothers. When all that came to the end of its first act 54 years ago we had this country, or rather this group of countries striving to live together.
It has been an unequal living arrangement, and as living arrangements tend will continue to be so. Inequality leads to discontentment leads to anger leads to effort leads to disillusionment leads to hopelessness.
There are people in our country who have lost all hope in it. Who can blame them really? Hate has spewed out of mouths and onto comments and arguments and posts and memes. There has been an inability for the citizenry to separate their ethnic identities from their political affiliations, there has been an even greater inability to empathize with each other. There is between a lot of people a cloud of anger, a cloud of disbelief, an inability to understand “how you can’t see the evil of…”
The blood and our two leaders haven’t helped. We got to a point where either of them was as bad as the other for any hope of national unity. We got where each of their supporters were as blinded as the others in their adoration for and disdain of the other.
And yet we need to live together because unity is usually the best option. This little hut though is cracked and careening into pieces. The paste that we chose back in 2007 to hold it together, a paste made of the sentiment “accept and move on” is proving unable to bear the strain of what we ask of it.
It is unreasonable to ask that nobody be punished for what happened over the last 4 months. It is incredible to expect this to be swept under rugs too, it is insane to keep using that paste. We only have 5 years till we have to do this again. If we accept that negotiations should be writ in blood 25 years later what happens in 5? What happens when Kenyan elections @ 30 come by again. Do we accept this all over again? And to what end. It’s been a long struggle building this shelter for all these people but if we keep insisting that injustice of the kind we have been witness to shouldn’t be repaid then the wounds fester, the beneficiaries of the injustice are emboldened, and the hut falls apart. Kenya cannot be unified with blind faith, sheer will-power of the kind needed to accept and move on is not enough. If this is allowed to just pass, and I believe it will, then the hut crumbles just a little more. When people are dying the first thing to do is to stop them dying, the second is to punish the people who caused the dying, and while doing all these things we need to do what we can to ensure that next time no people are dying. Kenya is failing on all counts and I am as pessimistic about the state of the hut as I’ve been in a long time.
Year 54 was not good for our unity and sense of nationhood. If we allow it to just slip into oblivion without doing the things that are so obviously needed then it will be as a gale that takes the thatch out of the hut, a cold and bitter wind that the inhabitants cannot huddle close enough to each other to ignore.
I was going to board a matatu one day, I’m tall-ish near 6 foot so I need to sit in front if I want comfort. There was however a man taller than me who wanted to sit in front. He was also big and old, you can tell the old, his walking cane, his face that had seen things, his missing teeth, his ruddy almost ragged laugh.
I sat next to him on the bitch seat in the middle. He asked me where I was from, I told him I’m Luo. And he told me he’s Nandi.
“Nyinyi vijana mnatudanganganya ati mnataka kuvunja nchi.” You youth you want to break our country.
He then told me about his youth. When he was in his 20s or so he was herding some cattle when the maasai came and raided. They raided and they killed. He said this was the worst thing that they took not only goods but also lives.
“Hii ilikuwa ’58. Umeniskia? 1958.” This was in ’58, you hear? 1958.
The world is wrought in pain and justification for revenge he was telling me but heaven’s image only exists in the capacity for forgiveness and the belief that together we can walk through these things.
He had no promises to extract from me. He only wanted the pleasure of instructing a young man that he had randomly ran into. He spoke and laughed with such heart that the whole matatu looked back wistfully as we left him at his stop.
The danger lies in generalisations. Over the year I had to remind myself over and over to look at the policemen in the face, to look at their hands and see them as distracted by their smart-phones as we all are, to see when it was a man and a woman and the pleasure of flirtation on their face, to remember that each of them is a heart beating.
The danger lies in generalisation. Over the year we have all come face to face with the intractability of ourselves and our friends. We have seen the lines drawn in the sand by us and them. We have waited unmoving as the sun scorched our resolve black. But here’s a hope, the hope that most individuals share certain values. That when stripped of the circumstances of political fervour and tribal hatred we can all agree on the sanctity of human life, the pleasures of peace, the necessity of justice, the virtue of forgiveness, and the rewards of memory.
That while every human being must move on accepting may mean accepting that we have to do more. Accepting that reprisals and revenge are not the way. That in the Bible when the Lord claims vengeance for himself it is for a good reason and we should leave that to him. But that justice cannot be forgotten for crimes, for sins we can forgive but for crimes we should punish. Punish dispassionately having had vengeance wrung form our hearts by the necessity to live together but punish all the same.
That old man has been here for longer than this our country. And the real pleasure he had in talking to me, the actual joy we take in each other, all the sex between tribes, the laughter at our stereotypes, the complexities when we are not painting big swathes of this side and that side. The heart of Kenya, the individual Kenyan, that old man, me, you. That should give a glimmer of hope.
The hat got lost, I left it in a club somewhere. I didn’t go look for it. I hope it finds a home with another individual who only knows this particular chain in the story. It’s gone but I wrote it this poem:
May the hat march on,
may its heart stay strong,
May it be a hut and keep some warm,
may it heal the hurt and offer shelter from the storm