Tag Archives: kenya

…she say’s she’s 54- Jamhuri thoughts

“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


The hat.

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.


The hurt.


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


The hut


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.


The heart.


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


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a spoiler at noonday

When you cry, for some reason, your sinuses clear up. You feel healthier right then but afterwards you are sniffling and sucking mucous in. When you cry your eyes begin to burn up. They turn red as if a small flame has been introduced to their vicinity. Salt water has flowed through them after all and brine is not something to cook eyes in.


It hurts to cry. It pains physically as well as emotionally. There are a myriad of mental diseases and yet I don’t see grieving included there. I imagine this is because grieving is more like an injury than a disease, its being hit by a car, cut by a sword, passed through with a bullet, stopping a punch. Your body tells you immediately things are not ok, that they are not as they should be and the reason you are hurting is external. You can point to it. You can say I’m limping because I strained my ankle. You can say I’m crying because all those people have been killed by the police since we voted. You can know this but it won’t stop you hurting for all the hours you are awake, it won’t stop you wincing when you put your weight on that leg. Just because you can identify the source of the pain that feels like its killing you doesn’t mean that you’ve stopped it killing you.


Yesterday Raila told people to stay home and mourn. All day I’ve had to listen to all these jokes about it. I’ve had to listen to valid points too, bills must be paid, bosses placated, life lived. It’s true and a fact that we don’t take mental disease seriously, it’s also true that we don’t take mental wounds seriously.


Were we together over the last few days? Did we all hear the news of our country burning. Are we going to discount the news from Nyanza province about the killings, the beatings, the torture there? Will we say that the people in Mathare, in Kibera are lying when they tell us the police are breaking into their homes and pulling them out? What about when we see the videos of it being done what do we say then? Are you sure that’s not ’07? I’ve heard asked. The answer to that must surely be, no we’re not because we remember seeing a policeman shoot a young man dead in Kisumu back then and also in 2013  and we’re going to go crazy if we have to believe that this shit is happening again.


What will we say when a 6 month old baby is hospitalised because police broke into its home despite the protests of its parents, and get this, hit that baby. Have you touched the scalp of a baby? Remember how soft it is at that time, remember the wispy hair,  the size of a child that young and then imagine policemen hitting that child. Punishing it for the crime of its parents. But what crime did the parents commit? They weren’t protesting. They were home. Why do they have to watch over this little soul in ICU and beg God not to take it away?


What do you say to the parents of an 8 year old girl who was shot while playing on her balcony? She was home. She was not protesting. She was home. What do you tell the father of that child when our Internal Security Minister gets up on tv and says that the only people killed are criminals? When did we even miss the part that allows the police to kill criminals? Was it when three boys were shot in Isili and we applauded it? Was it when three dead and tortured bodies were found rolled into a river? Was it earlier? How do you hold the mother of that child when she hears that the policeman who killed her daughter did it on purpose? What do you use to wipe away the tears of that poor woman when she hears from two eyewitnesses how this policeman took aim and shot?


When judgement was passed on the first murderer recorded in the Bible the Lord said “What hast thou done? The voice of thy brother’s blood calls to me from the ground.” And sentence was passed “a fugitive and a vagabond shalt thou be on earth.” And Cain pled for mercy and mercy was found, “Therefore whoever slayeth Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold.”


Just before all of this Cain had asked that most famous question of those who do not wish to accept responsibility, am I my brother’s keeper? And I say to you Mr. Kenyatta that you are. As president of this country you are the keeper of all her people. When the blood of any innocent is shed it calls to god for justice and for you to be his instrument. When the blood of any of us is shed by your emissaries and agents then it is as if it was shed by you. This, the heavy and terrible price that you pay for executive power. Being president is difficult and it should be. At the end of the day you are responsible for the executive. Your justice and your wrath are all we have because you give orders to the men with guns. And you told us you wanted to give orders to the men with guns. You told us you were the best possible person to give orders to the men with guns. A shitload of us said, ok, you tell the men with guns what they should do. We also said that what they do is now your responsibility. If you want this power you had better be ready for what it comes with. When blood is shed by the men with guns and we ask why your answer had better not be am I my brother’s keeper? Because you are.


If one of these men with guns disobeys you, we expect your wrath. Immediate and terrible. When what feels like co-ordinated attacks are launched against areas where people said they don’t want you in control of the men with guns, then weren’t they always right to say they didn’t want you? Weren’t they always right to protest you having that power? Weren’t they always right to say that the result no matter how meticulously guarded and verified that gave you the power over the men with guns was a wrong result?


And you can sit there where you sit and plead innocence. To prove your innocence you can point to your impotence. You can say, without batting an eyelid, that you were unable to guard even your own Deputy’s house from attack. We remember that a lone machete-wielding, motorcycle-riding, AP-gunning, mutherfucker went and took over the Deputy’s house for 8 hours and that the best of your men with guns couldn’t stop him till all of a day was done. So if you say again, “mnataka nifanyaje?” a fair amount of people will sympathise with the weight of the crown on your head and a fair amount will want you to put it down.


Yes, my President, you can always plead innocence and to prove just how guilt free you are show us to your incompetence. Remind us that you are unable to keep us safe. Remind us that you are unable to keep Mr. Ruto safe and that it is only by the grace of God that any of us stands here where we stand. But if that’s true why not give up power over the men with guns? Surely you know just how powerful those things are. There is a sound of thunder and a spot of red and 8 years after she came into this world a girl is dead. Imagine if these things were put to better use. But forgive me for asking you to stretch towards competence.



I remember the first time we asked you to shepherd the men with guns. I remember how I felt about that court that wanted to hold you to account for allegedly financing other men with guns, in another election, in another time that feels as familiar as this. I wanted them to go away. We Kenyans had chosen you and chosen your Deputy to lead us. I offered you congratulations because this is what the country wanted and with its democratic voice it had chosen. I put aside the niggling feeling that it’s wrong to put a man charged with crimes against humanity in charge of the men with guns. That last sentence seems obvious doesn’t it? It seems very, very obvious. But I said that the voices of 6 million needed to be louder than my doubt. And then we began to die.


At first it looked like you were doing all you could. When Westgate was attacked and with tears in your eyes you reminded us about our lions and their invincibility, I thought you were crying for the country but maybe it was just for your lost family members. Which, Mr. Kenyatta, I tell you is fine. The sting of death is most real when you know the life lost. Feeling that sting should lead to empathy, it should allow you to imagine how those people in Mpeketoni felt when they were attacked time and time and time again. When you stood up that day and said that it was the opposition undermining our country had you forgotten how it felt already?


Take a look at what your army did then. Remember how they kept us worried as they drunk and looted? Didn’t you realise that there was a discipline problem? Just last year when that lawyer and that client and that taxi driver were killed in a manner and following a series of events that implicated police posts and men all through your country didn’t you think that maybe something was wrong? When a man in a bulletproof car was gunned down and the whole country was convinced that your government was to blame didn’t it occur to you that maybe, just maybe, things were not right? When another lawyer was killed and nobody talked what did that make you feel? How does it feel to lead a country where only the first death matters? When Mr. Msando was killed just before the election and even some of your  voters thought it was you didn’t it pain you? Didn’t you realise that the force you were in charge of were a bunch of trigger-happy death-dealing maniacs. Ahhh you must have known you cannot claim that level of incompetence.


I’ve been reading the book of Jeremiah and, I wouldn’t recommend it as a book of comfort. The vision of God in that book is bleak and terrible, sample his words to his people in the 15th chapter:

“Thou has forsaken me saith the Lord, thou art gone backward: therefore I will stretch my hand against thee and destroy thee, I am weary with repenting. And I will fan them with a fan in the gates of the land; I will bereave them of children, I will destroy my people since they return not from their ways. Their widows are increased to me above the sands of the seas: I have brought upon them against the mother of the young men a spoiler at noonday; I have caused him to fall upon it suddenly and terrors upon the city.”


He is weary of repenting. He does not want to hear how sorry his people are. He has turned his back on them. He will allow them to die by the droves, good god he will even send game of thrones spoilers their way at midday on a Monday. He is wroth.


Look, you never want your people to feel any familiarity with the threats of an old testament god. Not if you are a real leader. If you are a real leader you will not act like he did and fan them with a fan in the gates of the land, and send men with guns to waylay them and instead of using rubber use lead until the widows are increased.


That bleakness is not the lot of a people. And, it is your responsibility, and nobody else’s to make sure that these things don’t happen. When our Ministers of Internal Security and Government Spokesmen say such hateful things as to lie about death I remind myself that if you didn’t want them to lie about death they wouldn’t be doing it. At least in this you cannot claim the clean hands of a commander whose soldiers fell to bloodlust. These are the pronouncements of men reading off of a script that you have directed.


My President, it would be wrong to say that you sent these men out with a purpose and that that purpose was to kill and to maim. It would be wrong to say that just because you were accused of crimes against humanity that you actually committed them or were partial to their commission in that future that is now our past. Nope, not to my president can you impugn such things because where is the proof? What makes you say anything so hateful without proof.


So we will do what you asked of us and clean your hands with incompetence. Your inability to see that the disciplined forces you command had tasted blood and seemed to like it. Your short-sightedness when you didn’t make an order that only rubber bullets should be used should there be protests against an election. Your inability to inspire fear in that man who killed that girl, he thinks he’s getting away with it, imagine that. That is what he thinks of your wrath. That is how well he thinks you can protect your people. Yet you didn’t see it.


Not seeing it, is that enough of a crime? Maybe not. Not for the rest of us. But you asked to be given control of the men with guns. You had control of them for 4 years and some change and then you asked again to be given control of them. Just as soon as you were given control of them for 5 years this happens? All this death around us. That’s all good Mr. Kenyatta and while we sit here and give hallelujahs because you are so much more just than your father you had better be sitting there and doing the same because it is not the wrath of the Father that is coming after you. The Father wearies of repenting, he can hear blood calling for justice, and he claims vengeance for his own. With him you would not get away with saying that you aren’t your brother’s keeper.


Murder happened on your watch by your people carrying out your orders (however imperfectly they may have been but remember even Cain just grew bad fruit in the opening verse that led to this very first murder.) the question you have to ask yourself in your cloak of innocence when you wonder why all these people are shooting arrows of guilt and responsibility your way is the age old question, am I my brother’s keeper?

We heard you speak about corruption and are worried you meant it about violence too when you said “sisi tunakula nyama, wao wanameza mate.” And your supporters said no, no, no he doesn’t mean that they are stealing, he just means that they are enjoying power. Well it’s been a post for painting you in the best possible light I can find. While you are enjoying that power please remember the awesome responsibility that comes with it. When I tell you the bible is a story about a God taking responsibility for the sins of his people even though he didn’t commit them do you realise this means that according to the God you believe in a leader must take responsibility for the actions of his people. That he is unable to plead ignorance or incompetence. That when that policeman knelt and shot that girl it is as if you knelt and shot that girl. It is a lot to ask of a person this responsibility I ask of you, but it is also a lot to ask of a people that power you asked of us. You have what you want…now?


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For Kenya!!!

Here’s something that unites Kenyans this January: the intense philosophical pondering over the doctor’s strike, who’s at fault, who’s not, who should we blame or should we just blame everybody for what’s going on? The doctors, the government, the people, tribalism, corruption, inefficiency, callousness, lack of decency, the sick people who are making our souls sick with all this agonising why in the world don’t they just wait until this crisis is resolved?


There has been a lot of debate about whether doctors are more important to a society than other professions are. Some of them think they are and they want to say it. They dearly want to say it but…they can’t, you don’t alienate the public at this time. So I’ll say it for them: medical health professionals are one of the most important people in any society. We need the farmers for food, the doctors so we are well enough to eat that food, the teachers to teach farmers and doctors. That’s my statement on the holy trinity of importance. It keeps going down further and further and not too far down we’ll get to priests, poets and prostitutes. They definitely come before lawyers, accountants and bankers though after builders, cleaners and deliverymen. The existential crisis about whether or not we matter is a deep one. Of course we all matter. But my point is most people would rather live with no lawyers than no prostitutes. You know these things by the fact of how many people have sought the services of the former as opposed to the latter.


So that’s how we start January. Philosophical rumbling to accompany that stomach grumbling. On the 4th straight night of noodles there are questions that deserve to be answered. Why oh why do we do this to ourselves? Must every January start in this rut? Must we be broke all the time? Do we have to December so damn hard? What is wrong with us? I told my aunt that I was broke because after my epic trip (which I will write all about after the fogs of memory make it diamond like through the mist) I had to buy gas. She almost burst out laughing:



“I’m young, I have young problems.”


I do. Ideally Njaanuary should be for parents shouldn’t it? January when you have to buy a new wardrobe of clothes, a new set of books, and manila paper-though now you can buy your lazy children pre-covered exercise books. And for whatever reason public secondary schools make you pay much more for fees in first term than they do the rest of the time. Why that happens is as good your guess as mine.


There’s also the pre-Christmas pay which if not a solely Kenyan thing is an African thing. I told a Polish girl about it and she couldn’t believe it. Why in the world pay two salaries in one month?


The dots connect. I once joked that Uhuru and Ruto are stealing wad after wad of money in an ingenious attempt to get rid of tribalism. You know, steal so much that the country unites against you. They would be martyrs, killing their political careers for the sake of the country. We wouldn’t remember them as such but they would be saved a special place in heaven where Judas Iscariot awaits. The seat next to the glory for those who do what is necessary and are hated throughout history. Atonement for the hell of having to hate what you do but doing it anyway because there is an idea here that matters more than you do. The idea of the sacrifice. The sacrifice that changes the world.


I look for national unity everywhere because we need it. And I find it and dub thee oh month of Njaanuary as another agent of this. This month strives with it’s lack of money, or pretence to lack of money, or smugness at having money, or relief at getting money to make us one. The common Kenyan condition that brings us together once again.


So as you drink keg instead of beer. As you drink once a week instead of 3. As you count down to the end of the month with a hope that cannot be contained know that you were not being foolish about how you spent your money in December. No. You my friend, my reader are involved in the great experiment of nation building that is Kenya. Your brokenness or lack of it. The knowledge of other people’s brokenness. Your social winter. Your economic slumber. As you toss and as you turn waiting for February so you can spring back….all of this is for Kenya! Kenya! Kenya! Nchi Yetu!!!!!


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Take back Kenya

He wants to write a love song

An anthem of forgiving

A manual for living with defeat

A cry above the suffering

A sacrifice recovering

But that isn’t what I need him to complete

I want him to be certain

That he doesn’t have a burden

That he doesn’t need a vision

That he only has permission

To do my instant bidding

Which is to say what I have told him to repeat.[i]



I woke up today listening to these words by Leonard Cohen a man who once introduced a song by saying “Even though we have no religion we have an appetite for something which is like religion, so in honour of those deep feelings and those irreplaceable appetites I offer this song”. [ii]It’s written from the perspective of God peering down at the singer trying to compose a hymn to help mankind. And refusing him to do what he wants to do, what he thinks is the right way.


I also woke up to the news of the over 40 people dead in Naivasha. A truck carrying inflammable material got in an accident. A huge bomb barrelled out from point zero. In its wake it swallowed a matatu with 14 passengers, it engulfed a police land cruiser and extinguished the lives of over 40 people. This was day 5 of the doctor’s strike of 2016 because death and despair do not await the honouring of collective bargaining agreements and the successful mixing of ingredients of back to work formulas. Disease and accidents and injuries are implacable in the face of whatever us humans do. They move on relentlessly. We do not keep them at bay with marches or with shows of impunity. They do not stop because the doctors made a heartbreaking decision to demand what they had been promised. They do not slow in the face of a government that has broken the heart of every Kenyan over and over again. The agents of fate are not concerned with the petty machinations of human beings. They move on like a melting glacier or a rising sun, we can shield ourselves from them but the fact of who they are is undeniable. This world we live in it needs a cry above the suffering because otherwise this is all we can hear.


There is a pain in being here and in being Kenyan while we are here. Those 40 will never live to see what could become of our country, they will never see the promise or the breaking of the covenant that we made 53 years ago when our first president watched a flag of black and red, of white and green unfurl in the middle of the night and blow in the wind. In that moment a country was born. Even before it was born though it had been abused. At this point almost everyone knows that a foetus can be harmed by the toxins taken in by its mother while gestating but back then, in the sixties, these were just myths. And so before Kenya was born it was harmed. “They made us hate ourselves and love they wealth” said a famous poet whose name is  an anagram of our country’s.


The child was scarred before it had a chance to draw its breath. When delivered it already needed the doctors we have allowed to go on strike. It needed healers and did not get them. It was delivered to dogs waiting at the gates of the castle, cast down and allowed to suffer some more. It survives despite all this and later in the morning I heard more of Leonard Cohen a song that could be sang to god or to a country or to anything greater than us and to ourselves too. A song that when 40 people die in a flaming inferno in the dark of the night we need to hear:


Behold the gates of mercy

In arbitrary space

And none of us deserving

The cruelty or the grace

O solitude of longing

Where love has been confined

Come healing of the body

Come healing of the mind

O see the darkness yielding

That tore the light apart

Come healing of the reason

Come healing of the heart

O troubled dust concealing

An undivided love

The heart beneath

Is teaching to the broken heart above

Oh let the heavens falter

And let the earth proclaim

Come healing of the altar

Come healing of the name[iii]


Kenyans at 53 are sad and twisted, angry and full of hate, divided and we know not why, full of greed, destroyed by want, victims of apathy and base despair, purveyors of violence and putrid passions. We need healing. So does our country and we can heal because the same Kenyans will come together to save a life of a stranger donating money by m-pesa, raising awareness on social networks, extending compassion however we can. This is also a country where I have seen people agonise over the doctor’s strike because they know that it is fatal. They may not know the fatalities but the fact that they will cease to exist has been enough. This is a country bubbling over with warm laughter and true smiles. With shouts of joy, music that can barely contain the happiness of its people. People so forgiving that we will always wipe the slate clean.


Yes this is a country where a boy from the Lake can move into the shadow of the Mountain and live unmolested. Political disagreements have never flared into violent confrontations and from my time here I know that everyone, almost everyone, in this country knows that the way things are is not the way they should be. I’ve looked into the blue eyes of elderly Meru people (I don’t know how they got blue but they did) and heard them speak passionately, tiredly, dejectedly, hopefully about the things they want, things that we all want. Justice, happiness, peace. They want the unity of their families and they want what they believe they deserve. I’ve met a girl so beautiful that when she smiles it drives all thought from my mind. From my window I have looked out and seen hills in the distance covered by clouds or shrouded in mist. I have seen them with their bases in shadow and the sun upon their crests looking like a stairway to heaven has been opened up. I have quaffed drinks with a man who implores us all to call him “bloody fuckin” and refused to give any other name. Sat in posh hotels, nice bars, out in the sun, keg joints, holes in the wall, peeing on the street with a Kenyan by my side and not a Kenyan who I knew in childhood. Kenyans who I met in this place 300 kilometres from my real home (I’m sorry Nyanza but Nairobi’s my place.)


I have been guarded by an old man who lived in Mombasa from 1964 to 2011. A man who was so concerned about my incessant coughing that he gave me a remedy: take a lemon and squeeze the juice into a cup, take an egg (kienyeji) and crack it uncooked into the lemon juice. Drink this down. I have felt the magic of Kenya as I’m coughing less than I did while I was in high school. From here I have felt close to people through all the technologies that have been brought to help us communicate. I have disagreed with many and argued and argued and yet when I needed their help these disagreements were put away in the dark corner to which they belong. At that point the division of who is who and from where fell away like scales from an eye. I walked with a girl who laughed so loud and shared a matatu with another one who talked so loud that even I noticed. These two grabbed the life given them with both hands. A full moon has shone down on me like a flashlight on a dark and lonely night. Filling the earth with so much white that everything was a silhouette the trees shaking in the wind, the passing stranger, the grass shimmering as the air kissed it. I have heard the sounds of three churches making their entreaties to their deities for intervention, for happiness and for all of us every damn Sunday. Walked amongst trees standing so high they look like giants. Found a mini-valley ringed by these trees so that the sun only shines down it at high noon.


If it be your will

If there is a choice

Let the rivers fill

Let the hills rejoice

Let your mercies spill

On all these burning hearts in hell

If it be your will

To make us well

And draw us near

And bind us tight

All your children here

In their rags of light

In our rags of light

All dressed to kill

And end this night

If it be your will[iv]


Leonard Cohen prays this words so passionately that it didn’t matter my religious persuasion I closed my eyes and I prayed with him. We need to have hope because there is more to give us hope than to cause us despair. That’s not even the reason. We need to have hope because if we don’t the night wins. I remember I wondered about that rags of light line. There is a judeo-christian tradition that says Adam and Eve were originally clothed in garments of light, that all we have left are the rags. Despite that we need to put them on and dance and dance until the light comes back. All we have in Kenya are the rags. The torn apart fragments of our love for each other, our similarity, our pain at each other’s suffering, our hope for a better tomorrow, our resolve to do something for it. All we have are the rags of these lights but even with this we can end this night we find ourselves in.


It’s either that or this. This thing we have now. This thing that is not working. This thing where the news makes you so sad you want to crawl up in your bed, close up your eyes, and waken when it’s all over. It’s either that or this. And today on the anniversary of the day of our first independence people are marching down the streets in Nairobi. They protest everything wrong with our government: the corruption, the incompetence, the injustice. They endure teargas, the risk and reality of arrest, the risk and reality of physical harm. They do this to try and give us what we all need, let the government falter and let the people proclaim….


What God wants Leonard Cohen to repeat and for all of us to hear is a message of hope, hope for here and hope for there:


Going home
Without my sorrow
Going home
Sometime tomorrow
Going home
To where it’s better
Than before

Going home
Without my burden
Going home
Behind the curtain
Going home
Without the costume
That I wore

[i] From the song Going Home.

[ii] Introduction to the song Show me the Place

[iii] From the song Come Healing

[iv] From the song If It Be Your Will


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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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the dread process

I really wish i could have made burger festival in Nairobi. Because burgers are awesome. You get some bread and then you put in the basic: that burger meat. Around this you can build castles and dreams. In the mix is cheese that’s just melting onto the meat so that it soaks through. Then you get another piece of meat and some bacon. More cheeses. More meat. A tomato. Barbeque sauce applied so liberally it’s dripping off your fingers at all times. Chilli sauce, mayonnaise. Then that first bite. You pile in and it slides back. The burger warns you that you are not ready for this shit. You think you are but you are not. So you relax and take another bite. And the burger is so full of promise and so big that you’re sure this will never end. Then it does and you bask in the post-satial glow. Belch. Have a cigarette. Be assured that life really can be this good.


There have been all these Mugabe quotes running around the internet. Of course they aren’t quotes by Mugabe but you can imagine Uncle Bob uttering every one of them at a rally. There is a wisdom in them. A truth that only a dictator for life who has seen it all- colonialism, independence, serving as head of government to a head of state that supposedly sodomised people, years of prosperity, the temerity to say that all the white settlers would have to leave his country (and in these Southern African countries the white population was much higher than it had ever been in Kenya. Until 1979 it was Rhodesia for chrissake), the huuuuuuuge inflation, threat of Tvsangirai and still keeps serving as head of state. He won’t see the world the way you and I do.


There’s one quote I particularly like “it’s impossible to bewitch African girls nowadays because you cut off their hair for a spell and some poor Brazilian woman goes crazy or a factory in hina catches fire.” As I was having a burger in burger hut with some friends one of them talked about the way people with dreadlocks are warned to be careful because that hair can be cut off and sold. Go into the making of weaves or whatever. This we must say has an awesome bright side. It’s great that we as a race, as a continent, as a country have began to crave hair that we can genetically obtain. The SI unit of beauty is not only long flowing hair but also tightly bound dreadlocks. Hair that grows so black and tight that nothing gets out of it alive. That this theft can become a concern for dreadlocked people is a sign of a racial pride taking root. An acceptance of who we are. Beauty in ourselves and what nature can make for us instead of a constant going out to look for it.


I watched the Star Wars movie last year and all through I kept wondering how few black people they hired in make-up or allowed to have a voice concerning what the actors would look like. The stormtrooper was great to see. He had this awesome head of hair when he took off his helmet. A black man’s hair. Compact, neat. Then he had adventure after adventure. He rolled in the mud, he fired lasers, he had a gruelling day and you know what? His hair was still compact, neat. It’s impossible. This hair that we men walk around in wants to be untidy. It wants to grow ridges and bridge off to locks. This is just how it is. There are men who at the end of the day have neat hair. But you have to consider what they have been doing for work. Especially if it’s a full head of hair and not this close to the skin thing that society loves men to do. Black hair cannot be neat at the end of the day for a black man who is involved in a gruelling physically tasking job. And this storm trooper guy had it down and patted the whole adventure through.


As I write Madaraka day just passed. It’s been 53 years of internal self-governance and isn’t that awesome? We are just starting to write the story of our nation. Kenya is becoming more and more real. When all this started it was this imaginary line that carted all our states into this one nation. An empire was formed and as long as there was a strong man at the fore there was a semblance of peace. It was a bloody peace though. The kind of peace that is maintained by assassinations and disappearances and torture and fear. The kind of peace that only gives fruits to kin and friends and silences all that would try to be foe. A peace that is slowly waiting to break and break it did over and over. There will always be men who will use the potential for hatred for their own means and for many of the last years there have been men who appealed to our individual state-hood to gain and keep power. The Luo state and the Kikuyu state and the Kamba state and the Luhya state and the Kalenjin state and all the other states and statelings in our country have become and been a very important part of who we are.


Things have happened but for a period of history they have happened to us all here together. The national anthem. The death of Pio Gama Pinto and Tom Mboya. The death of Kenyatta abd ascension of Moi. The coup attempt. The death of Ouko. Mulitparty –politics. Interstate wars. The rise of Kibaki and the sweetness of 2002 and the two hand salute of Narc. The horror of the 2007 war. The process of rebuilding and reconciliation. The new constitution. All that happened with the ICC. The death of Jacob Juma. All these things, they happened to a nation. They didn’t happen to any of the states. There is bound to be a pride in where we come from. We are going to care about them more. We are going to think that the other is wrong. But all these horrible things they are all a part of us as Kenyans. Not a part of us as Mijikendas or Boranas. They are all a part of us as Kenyans. Terrorists attack the nation. Elections are held everywhere. Tusker Gold celebrating Injera’s world record tries is sold everywhere.


As time passes on there is an identity of Kenyan being shaped by our shared history and told in our shared language. There is a shared culture taking root. These are the things a nation needs to become one. Growing pains suck. They are difficult and living history is writ in blood unfortunately but I have faith in this country. A place where all of us regardless of tribe have chuckled at something Mugabe said. Where we all know what Machozi Monday is and the whereabouts of Afraha Stadium is a place that points towards belonging. It’s a process, every damn thing is a process but on my more hopeful days, on the days when I can see the silver lining behind dreads being stolen I’m pretty sure that Kenya is becoming more and more real.


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write your own hieroglyphs

“Get up out them slave ships/ build your own pyramids/ write your own hieroglyphs”-Kendrick Lamar.


A lot has been written about the genius of Kendrick Lamar. He’s one of the few darlings of rap who is equally accepted by the masses and the people who listen to underground. He has a song that in four minutes tells about a beggar asking him for cash. It warps and wefts between what he and the beggar feel , the anger and the fear, the resentment and curiosity, the sense of entitlement and the beginnings of empathy on both sides. One person wondering why he’s not being helped and the other wondering how help can be demanded. It ends with the beggar declaring himself god. A throwback to another great storyteller telling us “whatever you did to the smallest amongst us i say unto you you did to me.”


Everywhere you look people are writing their own hieroglyphs. There is a proliferation of black writers and movie makers, there are numerous comic books, countless blogs. For the first time in the history of the world even those who would be considered oppressed are telling their stories or having their stories told for them. And, stories are important. Who tells stories is also important. This was one of the points that Chimamanda Adichie made with what I still consider her best book: Half of a Yellow Sun. Before I read that book I had no idea what Biafra was. At the end I was shaken by the war that split Nigeria. I read more and more about it. It was surprising to find out that Chinua Achebe considered himself Biafran that he ascribed to a nationality that split him from the Nigerian one that his popular persona identified itself as.


Let’s make no mistake nationality ascribes a sense of identity. Just as living together on this rock called Africa does. Recently I finished a book called the Fortunes of Africa: a 5,000 year history of wealth, greed and endeavour. The author, Martin Meredtih, had set himself a herculean task. To somehow condense the history of a whole continent into a book. An impossible task that surely called for tough editorial choices as more and more things were culled. It’s impressive that he weaves a coherent story that is almost straight chronological. He takes us from the west to the east and the south to the north and ever forward. Years advance here and there and then he goes back to a region we haven’t visited in a while. He manages to do it in prose so deft that the book never at one time feels like a drag or a text book.


My uncle works for a German television company and I asked if he would be covering the IEBC demos and I was told that they don’t stir themselves unless the death toll reaches 200 people. It’s cold but when reporting on a whole continent there has to be a threshold for the news. You can’t go for every riot. You can’t begin explaining what IEBC is and positioning the major players before the evening news. Context is hard to set because Africa is a vast place and when reporting on it you must make decisions such as wait until 200 people die. This is when reporting on the present of Africa when writing a book on its history hundreds, thousands of small conflicts will fall by the wayside. There are countries that don’t feature because of the examples of peace they are. Botswana is mentioned as a place that successfully flirted with multiparty democracies from the beginning of its independence and because nothing happened there (by the standards of the book) we never check in.


The history of Africa as the history of any place is a history of bloodshed. It is a history of warfare and greed. It is a history of profit and the blackness of the human soul. It is a history of slavery and lost lives. It is history as history usually is. Even the pax romana depended on a ruthless and abhorrent policy of warfare and slavery and punishment for those who were not roman citizens in order to exist and the History of our continent is not an exception. It is admirable what he manages to do in the book. Piecing together as he does what he does here is no easy task.


There’s a reason I put that quote by Kendrick Lamar at the beginning. Martin Meredith is not an African. He’s a Briton and though he seems to write dispassionately about the role of his country’s empire in the suffering of Africa there are parts that seem biased. For a long time he writes in a way to suggest that Britain wanted nothing more than to end slavery in Africa. That it pressed for laws of equality in South African. That it was thwarted by rogue agents. I read this and i was wondering what became of such a benevolent empire that it would eventually go on to have such a brutal reign here. Here in Kenya. A place that saw the heavy hand of the British Empire clamped down on it again and again. There are the King’s African Rifles, Kenyans forced to fight in laws for his majesty. Shipped to die for a country that wasn’t theirs and later in the Second World War to die ostensibly for the freedom from oppression that was represented by concentration camps. Concentration camps that were recreated right here as tens maybe hundreds of thousands of our Kikuyu and Meru and Embu brothers and sisters were denied their freedom, tortured and many killed because of Britain’s imperial ambitions. But perhaps there is not enough space in a 5,000 year history of the continent to include this or to properly explore Britain’s intentions beyond a sentence where Queen Victoria seems very pleased to be reported to a further expansion of her empire. Though that would seem to be contradicted by the number of times we hear about the British Empire fighting the Arabs, Africans, other Europeans to end the slave trade.


All empires are evil though. There’s no question of this. As I read through the book this was the lesson that presented itself to me over and over. All empires are evil. An empire after all is not a nation or a state or a tribe or a village. It is a collection of all of these. It is an ever expanding collection of political units brought in by strength or show of strength or need of strength. Borders are expanded by blood and money. At the end of every war there were slaves taken and sold. If you look at the pyramids of Sudan and Egypt you can be sure that they were built with slave labour. The huge numbers of African shipped out of the continent especially in the last thousand years could not have been possible without local collaboration.


The history of Africa is also the history of eradication of its religions. It becomes a plausible theory that all gods can be killed by the chance at better weapons. At a better life. At more money. At more power. This is what chiefs and kings were offered. This is what they took in order to convert. The promise that you could pack a bigger punch.


Every once in a while the history would be slowed down to examine the actions of an individual and the effects of his life. These were the most touching parts of the books to me. The stories of Africans changing their destiny for whatever reason. An emperor of Abyssinia Mendes Susenyo declared that the state’s religions would no longer be under the Patriarchy of Alexandria but the Papacy of Rome.  His brother , Malka Christos, put together a huge army because of what he perceived as this betrayal of their ancient ways and they clashed. The emperor won and walked the battlefield with his son Fasilidas who said to him:


“The men you see lying dead here were neither pagans nor Muslims over whose deaths we would rejoice, but Christians, your subjects and fellow countrymen, and some of them your own kin. It is not victory that we have gained for we have driven our swords into our own bodies….”


The emperor abdicated the throne and lived his life in depression and repentance for what he had done.


There is another story about the Akan state of Asante. For a long time Akan chiefs had used wooden stools to represent the collective soul of their chiefdoms. In the 1690s a chief called Osei Tutu introduced a Golden Stool in a feat of nation building and public relations that politicians now should pay attention to. He said that this was superior to all the other stools and that it held the souls of all the Akan people. With that symbol of national unity he created an empire where there was so much gold that gold dust was the medium of exchange, “this much dust for a bunch of bananas please”. And here is a gripe i had with the book that i admit may be a function of my bias- it seemed that these great Africans and their kingdoms were only introduced to show how they would eventually be thwarted by the invaders. The story of the golden stool is not a story of who Osei Tutu was or how he got to the point where he did this. It is not a story of how the empire was organised we are just assured it is. It is instead a story of the war of the golden stool as the British demanded it for their queen. It is a story filled with instances of humiliation at the hands of British governors and soldiers, a story of the futility of resistance. This is the end of the story and i wouldn’t’ advocate for the end of the story to be cut out but the end is not the whole story. The beginning and the middle is not a foreword even though it is a prelude to European interference which seems to be the major focus of the book.


We visited South Africa a lot. And i could never get myself to care about what was happening down there. The conflicts and struggles of the Boers were never going to evoke any emotional involvement. Especially since the book did not shy away from showing that the Boer’s independence seemed motivated by a desire to oppress the Africans whose land they had stolen. South Africa was declared independent before almost anywhere else in Africa and yet I find it impossible to think of it as other than a country that gained its independence in 1994. This is true for most Kenyans. We cannot think of a time with apartheid as a time when there was independence. The story of the Boers and the British and their wars with each other did not feel to me like a history of Africa, more a history of Africa’s colonialists. This may not be true and it may not be fair but my book about 5,000 years of African history would have spend very little time down there.


Or maybe it wouldn’t but the lens of the book would have been focused more, much more on the proud history of what happened before colonialism. The proud rebellions during colonialism. All the European interferers would have played a tiny part. Nothing pivotal. Their lives would never have been studied, not until they came back to Africa and their actions back home would not have warranted numerous paragraphs. I know i would have been interested in a different story and strived to give a different portrayal. Perhaps that’s just it that maybe if I was sure enough of myself I wouldn’t have been struggling to give a portrayal of Africa,  I would have been struggling to understand it in order to explain it to myself and to anyone reading it. This is what Martin Meredith was trying to do, to understand our continent by looking at its history. It’s a noble effort but when not carried out by a person born on this little rock there is something missing.


There is something that an African writer would bring to such a project that it is impossible for anybody else to. The innate knowledge that for all our lives we have been Africans. The frustrations of this place was not something that was happening over there but something taking place in our souls and at our feet. Something that has been happening to us. The fact that this is not a place we developed a passion for in high school or university but one from whom we have been bequeathed vast cultural and institutional memory. The things we would see are very different than those anyone else would. The book ends on a very pessimistic note. The last chapters speak about our new wars. The ones a person my age would remember. The rise of Boko Haram, Post election violence in Kenya, the mess in Libya, Egypt’s inability to move past its pharaohs. Yet this is the tone that pervades most of the book. Sadness and fatigue. The quest for the fortunes of Africa corrupting everybody who was born on the continent or happened to come into contact with it.


This is a legitimate take on Africa. Exhaustion and wondering if we will ever shed our history of bloodshed. Our history of dependence as the final chapter points to a growing dependence on China. Our history of dependence on people not from here to attempt the epic tasks of writing down 5,000 years of Africa.


It’s a book I would recommend anyone to read. Thoroughly researched, well-written, eye-opening. Good. Really good. But here I am hoping that someone like Owaah will undertake such an endeavour one day.


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