Monthly Archives: October 2018

closing time

I loved you when our love was  blessed

I love you now there’s nothing left

but sorrow and a sense of overtime”– Leonard Cohen singing Closing Time

 

Before sitting down to write this I brewed me a cup of coffee and sat down at the entrance of my house to overlook my view for the last time. Blaring from my speakers was a mix of the Bobs- Marley and Dylan, and Leonard Cohen. A randomised playlist so I couldn’t know what was coming next. Just as I was finishing up the cup of coffee the song closing time came on, whose lyrics were apt. Sometimes there’s a runner running the random things.

 

I’ve been kicked out of where I stay.

 

It’s not just me though. We’ve all been kicked out. The landlord wants to renovate, everyone I tell this hears speech marks around the word. “You’re sure he’s not selling?” Look though, I don’t know. I have no idea. All I know is I was just renting and now the owner has asked for it back. This will happen with this home  we call life too and when it does we can rage against the dying of the light. Then when the light turns to night rage no more.

 

Despite any flippancy that may fall off the previous paragraph have no doubt that I loved this place. Loved it. Loved it so much that it’s the first house I remember dreaming about since my childhood home. The first place I have lived in by myself that holds that intangible element that makes it sound, turns the noise of the air into music, that special magic that some places just have.

 

It’s this compound in Nairobi West that’s rumoured to have belonged to one of Kenyatta’s ministers. Not the one we have right now the one we had after uhuru (and we should all hope that in three decades this sentence won’t be rendered ambiguous by current events.) The set-up of the place brings to mind the compound that Don Corleone retired to with his family when all the mafia wars were extracting too high a price.

 

There’s 10 dwelling units here. Once you enter the gate there’s a parking lot long enough to hold maybe 8 cars side to side. Then there’s the main structure. This contains 6 houses on 2 stories. The upstairs houses are 2 balconied constructions. There’s bathtubs in the bathrooms and 3 rooms each in those main houses. To the back there’s a two room place where the watchmen live, next to this a long dwelling place, never been inside this. Next to it is a standalone bedsitter, then there’s the structure I live in.

 

It’s a two-story building, one-bedroomed houses stacked on top of another. It’s perfectly rectangular and shares a wall with Ciderwood Hotel on Gandhi Avenue. It’s just big enough for me. It fits everything I have perfectly. It’s a contained place, is how I feel about it. The sun rises from the windows to where my bed is faced. This means on sunny Sundays I get a show since I don’t have curtains but shears. Even in the dark of electric light they glimmer with patterns of flower and circles and these concentric lines leading away from the flowers and circles. When I look at it just right it looks like Salvador Dali paintings of a five-limbed creature with suns for hands and planets for legs. As the sun rises it plays on this glimmering and shimmering. The windows are slightly open so that the shears are set a-flutter. And when they flutter it looks how a heart feels when it does this in the presence of the most beautiful person you know, it’s not even beauty that sets that feeling off in the heart, I think it’s being able to tear down the barriers between you and that person so that the God in you can see the God in her and release tears of boundless love at the reunion. The fluttering is accompanied by shots of light in colours purple and maroon, textures obsidian and absurd, moments fleeting and ephemeral.

 

I’m a second floor denizen so to come to my house I have to go up this flight of stairs, a small zig-zag, not enough to put the breath out of even the fattest of my friends or relatives. We get to the door and there’s a little space just before the door. There’s a wall here too, it’s just tall enough for me to rest my ashtray on. There’s a slight elevation before you enter the house, this means that I can sit on this porch cross-legged and look out at Nairobi West.

 

The view  to the immediate right is one of the Ciderwood parking lot which also serves as its smoking zone. I wave at the regulars when I come out here for a smoke. I see some on random mornings as I’m polishing my shoes and shout conversations over the wall, usually about the evil nature of the souls of lawyers. On very occasional mornings the dregs of a fight can be heard. Shouting and screaming. There’s usually a woman involved and insinuations of slutty behaviour, this is usually answered with the assurance that, no your mother is a slut who else could have slept with such a man as sired you?

 

And I loved you for your beauty

but that doesn’t make a fool of me

you were in it for your beauty too

 

There’s a blockage of electric lines and then a tree with bare branches. Sometimes birds come to perch here. In fact there’s a bird’s nest right in my neighbour’s roof. I remember listening to Bob Marley sing “Three Little Birds” as I stood there looking at the 2 birds that live in the nest and hoping a third would show up to chirp me into serendipity. It happened. Those two birds broke up though just the other day. I saw the fight happen, I saw one push and muscle the other until it flew off in indignation. Ciderwood has a resident cat, or it’s roof does. It’s gold and white and had a cute little kitten the other day. It was tiny and an exact replica. I got to see the coldness with which these animals treat even their kin. Hanging on the tree in the distance has been a Jubilee flag. The flag flew tall and clean for months. Recently it’s been becoming ragged and dirty. The promise of what it could be even to those who believe in the endurance of such symbols has faded and will soon be nothing but strips and a rag on a tree.

 

Then there’s the view of the sky. I’ve stood and sat watching the sun ignite it in all the famous colours of indigo and lavender. Seen birds fly across my view-path. Solitary birds out for a soar. Groups of birds flying in a v pattern. A profusion of birds that looked like a whirlwind, there were dozens of them and they were flying upwards in circles, and wherever they were being produced from it seemed like it was by an angel with a bubble machine. They weren’t ending and their flight patterns were so intricate that I wondered once again what the birds are up to on earth. It seemed obvious it was no small thing.

 

At night I can see the stars as well as you can from Nairobi but the real gift of this place has been the sighting of the moon. I saw the blood moon from right there. The most recent moon I’ve seen was September’s full moon. When you can see this thing without cloud cover it feels like it’s giving you health, the whiteness with which it shines must purify. When the clouds cover it though there’s battle in dream. The gravity it exerts can turn them wispy, change their shapes so it looks like a dog with a bright eye in its face. Then you look again and the moon  has scuttled everything so now it looks like the remains of a shuttle taking off, then you look again and all you see is health.

And the moon is swimming naked

and the summer night is fragrant

with a mighty expectation of relief

 

My world has been a universe of things that I’ll never do again.

 

Added to this my neighbours have been moving out. The one whose house is overhang by the bird’s nest left at the beginning of last month and within 2 days I realised that somebody in that house had been cleaning up birdshit for the entire duration of my stay as splatter of white started dotting the concrete.

 

My neighbours left one by one and there was a mass exodus last weekend leaving just two of us in the compound. I wanted to move on a Friday, also so I could see the emptiness. The lights that shine in the compound don’t anymore. The windows have no curtains. There are no sounds of life anymore. It looks shuttered already, it looks derelict immediately. The clothes-hanging area seems to have  a wind blowing through it and this wind sounds forlorn. It stirs nothing as it blows except for my memories of what used to be. The only light that shines is mine. The only sound playing is mine. The whole place is mine and it feels empty. Extremely empty. The darkness assumes a physical force and a menacing character.

 

“And the place is dead as heaven on a Saturday night”

 

Water is running out, I haven’t had any in my pipes for 10 days now and all I have is 2 days before I leave. My stores and stocks are depleted but they needed to be so I could move all these bottles but I miss water. When I first moved here there was a family downstairs. They had this little girl maybe three years old and we became friends. She’d light up when she saw me and get me to throw her up and down. She’d enter my house and ask for discarded items that she could play with. She’d write with chalk on the walls. Once she plucked me a flower. They moved about nine months ago but she was my favourite neighbour. I still remember her clear now, this was my favourite house and I really hope I’ll still be able to remember it clear, and hold it dear for a long, long time.

 

I also felt a love in this house that was intense and true and that ended like some novel whose last paragraphs would have left me walking around shell-shocked. The seeming inevitability of endings once we look back at them has the effect of giving meaning to every little thing that happened. It can make you see the seeds of destruction in the germination of everything. A good ending can make everything seem almost perfect, it can turn it into those ruins of castles that are so beautiful to look at. What we are seeing is decay and the reminder of death but what we are feeling is beauty and the endurance of love, the strength of faith.

 

and i lift my glass to the awful truth

which you can’t reveal to the ears of youth

except to say it wasn’t worth a dime

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Why I brought back Moi Day

Last year I filed a case in Court questioning the government’s decision to stop having Moi Day celebrated as a public holiday. The case was prosecuted and, in a judgement, delivered on 9th November, 2017 Justice Odunga declared that the 10th of October is in fact a public holiday and should be observed as such.

 

Legend has it that the month of August has 31 days because Caesar Augustus wanted his month to be equal in length to Julius Caesar’s. Fast forward to 1989, leave the empire of Rome for the nation of Kenya and history repeats itself.

 

The second President of the Republic has a day named after him and declared a public holiday just like the first President of the Republic did. A look around Kenya and her institutions are a testament to the vanity of our first two presidents. History didn’t repeat itself once, echoes of the game of the Caesars can be found in Kenyatta and Moi Avenue, Kenyatta and Moi University, Jomo Kenyatta International Airport and Moi International Airport, and for a long time on the faces of the currency.

 

In an attempt to reach for some measure of immortality the two men stamped their names across the country in its various institutions, made themselves felt temporally by dedicating days, and insinuated themselves into every monetary transaction. The need for legacy that beats in the hearts of men who have achieved positions of power finds its expression in many ways, for these two one way was the name game. Yet roads become potholed, currency is worn through, statues decay and crumble, and the only constant in the world is the vanishing of monuments.  Periods of power are eventually looked at with the clear eyes of history, investigations into tyranny are carried out, and presidents are finally judged for what they did and not for what they named.

 

The first sparks of that judgement on President Moi began with the overwhelming rejection of his choice of successor and has been cemented in the fact that for people born after 1985 the refrain to the song “yote yawezekana” is “bila Moi.” The gospel roots of the song are more felt than known and most people below the age of 33 would be hard-pressed to state any alternative ending to the chorus.

 

Yet, Moi Day was still celebrated after the departure of President Moi. It was faithfully observed as a public holiday for the next 8 years. In 2010 the current constitution of Kenya was promulgated, a document so encompassing that it provided for the definition of and dates of national days renaming Kenyatta Day as Mashujaa day but making no statement on Moi Day. Within the constitution is the proviso that all laws existing before its promulgation will continue to have an effect as long as they don’t contradict the constitution. One of these laws is the Public Holidays Act that parliament amended during Moi’s time to give him his day. An act that recognizes Moi Day not as a National Day but as a public holiday an important distinction that means the Public Holidays Act does not in fact contravene the constitution- another Public Holiday we’ve been celebrating all this time is Boxing Day on the 26th of December for the same reasons.

 

This means that Moi Day is still a public holiday we just conveniently forgot about it following the promulgation of the constitution. As mentioned before though roads get potholes, statues crumble, and days are forgotten-sometimes deservedly so. The opinion of the Kenyan public towards President Moi and his leadership is divided when considered through the lens of nostalgia. One thing that a majority of the public agree with though is that the days of our former President were filled with a lack of fidelity to the rule of law. An uncomfortable number of people were above the law, presidential pronouncements had the force of heavenly edicts and the government in its actions was not to be questioned.

 

Every argument by a pro-Moi citizen about the effects of unity and political stability has to be tempered against the way in which the government ran amok. Laws were for everybody else and their enforcement was harsh and immediate yet they never touched on the government, it’s leaders, and their actions. When tearing down monuments we can agree to start with that dedicated to absolute devotion to the government and unquestioning acceptance of their authority. That the tower of tyranny taunts us even now tells us we haven’t done enough or haven’t done the right things.

 

One of the tenets of democracy is the rule of law. The law as a ruler binds everyone even the government. The law states that the 10th of October is Moi Day and should be celebrated as a public holiday. This has not been done for 8 years. Breaking the law in order to tear down a monument to a ruler we don’t think deserved it has the unintended effect of strengthening the monuments to lawlessness that constituted the worst parts of that ruler’s regime.

 

There is a built-in irony to the consideration of Moi Day. In 1989 the President did not stand up and declare it a holiday he had parliament amend the Public Holidays Act. In this, the rule of law was adhered to and yet nearly 30 years later, after the fights for multi-partyism, the promulgation of a new constitutional dispensation, and even the overturning of a presidential election the proper procedure to have this day taken off the books has not been followed.

 

Parliament as the will of the people has the power and the responsibility to amend the Public Holidays Act to rename or remove Moi Day. Our Parliamentarians have had 11 months to consider whether or not to undertake this action and have not done so. This means either that they believe the day should be observed in its current form in honour of our 2nd President or that they could not be bothered to do the work necessary to amend the act.

 

This brings us to another necessary reason to observe this holiday: for the workers of the nation. We live in a country where only a tiny minority are granted the 21 leave days that the Employment Act provides for. Most people get up and go to work every day except weekends. In a country with an attitude towards worker’s rights such as the one displayed by most of our employers a public holiday is a necessity. It is for many the only day they get to rest and relax. The removal of a public holiday is not just an abstract example of the need for rule of law, it is a felt and real deduction from the benefits available to employees. A deduction all the more glaring when most people are working non-stop and the hint of a complaint could throw them into the more critical crisis of not having a job to complain about.

 

A public holiday is for almost all the only day that a family can gather and friends can see each other over long distances. In a country that is trying to define itself in relation to its past and its aspirations an opportunity such as the one presented to us should not idly pass us by.

 

Parliament had a golden symbolic opportunity to rename the past, to wash it clean, or to dedicate it to something else. The government has had the opportunity to continue ignoring the law. Presented before them is an opportunity to follow in the footsteps of President Moi and either break the law because they are its only enforcers or change the law because it is them we chose to speak for us.

 

There is also in the middle of this strange thing- a Public Holiday that exists in the books but hasn’t in reality for years- an opportunity for Kenyans. If our first colonisers had been French instead of English then Moi Day would unconsciously mean to all of us “my day.” And there lies another of the contradictions bound up in consideration of this day. If we could imagine a different (maybe worse, maybe better, who knows) history for ourselves, in a language we would then be familiar with, 10th of October would be for all of us “my day”.

 

Should we then imagine a different history for ourselves? There can exist in our minds a Kenya without Moi and his day. A Kenya without the legacy that means his proteges are now in charge of the country. A country that wasn’t marked, marred, and made for 24 years into what it was in 2002, what it is now. We can deny the effects of history on our current reality and refuse to consider it. We can even say that it wasn’t the British who came here and enslaved us but the French and light-heartedly call the 10th of October Mói day. We can do all that but that don’t make it real.

 

What is real is the 10th of October as Moi Day. What’s real is that with seriousness and intent we can make it our day. We can refuse to hide from history as Kenya so often does, we can decide to confront it and see what it tells us about who we are. We can take this day that was a symbol of the individual power resting in one man, this day whose discarding was a symbol of government’s lack of respect for law, and turn it into something.

 

Turn it into laughter with family and time with friends because in those institutions our most personal histories are writ. Use it to reflect on the state of our nation and where we are headed because the history we have not yet lived is the most important one. But importantly use it as each one of us sees fit. Personalise it  to ponder past presidents or pamper our bodyparts or peel through our public and private personas or peep into our past or parse through our present or prepare for pains and parties to come or parcel our time to people we love.

 

Whatever we choose as long as we chose it.

 

We can use it, use it so that when we call it “My day” we’ll have earned that right.

 

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