by JKS Makokha [Kenya]
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It is uncanny sometimes how memories both stale and fresh keep popping up in one’s mind without an invitation or appointment. Now I remember how many, at home, late last year believed that something terribly great was about to happen in Kenya on New Year’s eve or soon after. This was the day that the electoral results for the most hotly contested presidential race in our country’s post-colonial history were to be published. The voting itself had taken place on 27th December and normally the results would be out by the 29th. But these were not normal times. No they were not. In an election of stakes this high, a half of me could understand the sense of foreboding. The other half did not. It chose, rather, to feel the air for meaning.
The feeling was indeed all over the land. It was one like none known to me in my three decades of life in this world as a Kenyan. It was that kind of fiendish feeling you sometimes see and smell rather than feel or hear whenever you witness a fatal accident. But what accident? The politicians for once had campaigned peacefully and the people had reciprocated in kind by coming out in unprecedented numbers and voting in peace. Other African countries were already being lectured diplomatically from White House and other centers of global power on the importance of Democracy with Kenya being cited as a shining local example.
I also recall seeing the strange feeling, etched so elaborately in the eyes of fellow citizens on my home town’s evening streets. I saw it in the fellow passengers with whom I normally queued at our bus terminus downtown as we waited for our public transport home. This daily dusk wait for matatus (Nissan mini buses) in neat queues especially in the major city termini, is a surprisingly new national habit that I recently came home to after some years of study abroad. You see, I too had a vote to cast before going back to proceed with my scientific pursuits in cold Europe, lest it be said I missed out on the greatest elections ever in Kenya’s history. When I left for abroad, citizens used to scramble for matatus in a melee of sorts and usually the weakest went home last and late, many to face the ire of their irate wives or houses full of hunger. I am told that the incumbent government has been very vocal about this “example” of development that it had brought since its 2002 historic election win. New citizen-friendly traffic rules were now being enforced all across the “new” country. Behold what a government of the African people by the African people and for the African people led by a distinguished Makerere economist with four decades of political experience can do for its people! This was a common beer exclamation whenever the government supporters had had their fill. So I was told.
Anyway. Back to that ominous feeling in the air immediately after the vote. I remember smelling the feeling in the sunset breeze that blows the amber sun westwards across the azure skies just before nightfall. I smelt it as fellow passengers scrambled out of the matatu with their tired minds set for sweet home. I smelt it as whiffs off fellow pedestrians as we scurried down the nearby sprawling slum’s snaky alleys, in good time to catch the Seven o’clock news in Kiswahili, the national language, to await the publication of the delayed election results.
Yes. Expectation. This was it. A feeling of great expectation.
This feeling of great expectation floated everywhere. I now remember. It was the kind of ominous sensory omen that back then appeared to seethe out of most citizens like a whisper saying, “Something extraordinary is about to happen to us this year for sure!”
Newly arrived from abroad after the long study absence, I really wanted to understand this feeling more, this mood. So I asked. And asked. And asked. Some said then that the populist Opposition was headed for a landslide win against the incumbent Government. But quickly added that the latter will reject the Electoral Commission’s results, ban all media and deploy specially trained General Service Unit (GSU) anti-riot police in the city and bastions of opposition. The opposition strongholds such as my village in the Great Rift Valley will rise up in arms and a season of anomy like no other in our history would descend upon the land. Our first civil war. Others, the optimists, argued the Opposition was indeed headed for a landslide victory but it will only win by an extremely slight margin. A re-run will then be arranged by the competent Electoral Commission of Kenya (ECK), headed by an able Makerere-trained lawyer, between the winner and runner up of the first round. The winner between the two will be declared the next President of the Republic of Kenya and the Commander-in-Chief of our Armed Forces, revered across Africa and beyond for their rare discipline, and all will be well. This is Kenya. They reminded me. The island of peace in a sea of chaos from the Great Lakes to the south to the Horn of Africa to the North and East.
Most of these optimists were mainly the educated folk. I remember here the noisy retired teachers who sat with their sickly bimbos in the dimly lit corner table at the local draft pub or the talkative university student donning a 50 Cent T-Shirt with a tattoo of Dedan Kimathi shooting pool and wheeling the December vacation away with his ghetto age-mates using his government University tuition loan. The third group was made up of matatu drivers and their aides /conductors, known in local dialect as makangas, especially those of the matatus I used to catch from town to my relative’s place in Kibera during that short four-days voting vacation I had taken. Their confidence was interesting. They too argued like the elite that the government will win the hotly contested elections. The only difference was they always remembered to point out that this will happen whether the people like it or not. Watu wapende wasipende.
But how could this be so? The Opposition had brought together a formidable coalition of 40 out of our country’s 46 tribes against the Government’s union of three tribes. Two of the remaining tribes normally abstain from voting and the last was solidly behind a splinter Opposition party. Surely even the opinion polls that had been released each fortnight by four independent pollsters were consistently and unanimously issuing results that clearly showed where even a fool should place his bet. The diplomatic grapevine and academic analysts on global TV were all talking about the impending transition of power after the polls. It was known across the continent as was evident from online version of newspaper political columns that something big was about to happen at the Kenyan elections.
I could still not understand why many believed that the incumbent government was going to emerge victorious fin the face of foreboding. And my short vacation in Kenya was running out. I thus sought once and for all yet another opinion from a common man on the day of my return to Europe. With the time of my departure well at hand, I resolved in my mind not to leave the country without making a final attempt to understand why the matatu men were feeling that only an iceberg of a miracle from wherever will sink the Titanic of the current establishment. My random respondent happened to be a sulky looking driver of the matatu I decided to board to the airport. But first, his matatu.
It was a real matatu, no games. I tell you. It was splashed in paints of all the colors of the rainbow wrapped neatly together by one single golden ribbon running all around the van from front to back. The golden ribbon tells a visitor in Kenya that a certain van is a public means of transport. It is one of those illegal yet productive statutory requirements the present regime has come up with in various sectors of the national economy, matatu transport industry included. The idea of the golden ribbon was a second-hand import from Tanzania. I think in the spirit of East African economic cooperation and regional integration initiatives currently in place between the two countries together with neighboring Rwanda, Burundi and Uganda. In the land of the good Mwalimu Nyerere, they use a crimson one. The ribbon is blue in Uganda. It is yellow in Rwanda.
After the fall of old Moi’s 24 years KANU dictatorship in December 2002, the next year saw Transport Minister of the then victorious NARC coalition of opposition parties-turned-government, bring order to the erstwhile infamous disorder of Kenyan roads. His mission was clear and noble. Use the restoration of order on the most public of places, the roads, to send a message across the land that a new government of efficiency was now in place. The citizens were bound to be impressed. They had lived for 24 years with a road network that was monster. It had been munching away the innocent lives of 12 citizens a day for as long as they could remember. So (in)famous was the chaotic public transport system at the height of KANU’s rule in the 1980s that after their once-a-lifetime safari to Kenya, German tourists always bought at the national airport’s duty free shops T-Shirts with our national flag color emblazoned with the bold words:
“I survived the Matatu Madness in Kenya”.
The golden ribbon scheme of the powerful Transport Ministry was not just an act of populist politics or law enforcement. Many citizens across the politico-tribal divide welcomed it. The day this rule had come into force, my stepmother had sent me the same SMS five times about it. I was happy for her and for the people. She has a 103 kilogram frame. She could finally travel without fear in matatus. There will be no more murderous attempts against her by other passengers who normally squashed her big body painfully between themselves, 2 adult goats and a sack of charcoal in a tiny 12-seater Japan-made van! It is this golden color all around the matatus that struck most people as the new change brought about by the goodly new minister.
Personally, I believe it also served a deeper psycho-semiotic purpose other than just identifying vehicles officially authorized by the Transport Licensing Board (TLB) to transport people and goods. You see, the matatus are the most ubiquitous means of transport in the country. You will find them everywhere in the nation from the cities to the rural counties, from the dusty Muslim deserts of our North to the endless miles of southern savannah traversing the theatre of the annual wildebeests migration site in the Masaai Mara Game Reserve was declared one of the new seven wonders of the modern world. So, the color rule served that specific symbolic purpose of pointing out to all across the land that a historic change of guard in Kenya’s political leadership had taken place in the oft distant capital city Nairobi, the seat of our government.
If a demi-naked Turkana herdsman herding his hundreds of goats under a starving acacia tree somewhere out there in the sun-scorched mapless plains of Lokichoggio near our border with the SPLM-governed Southern Sudan inquires innocently:
“Kwanini walipaka rangi hiyo ya malaria pande yote kwa matatu wote?”
‘Why have they splashed a ribbon the color of malaria around the vans nowadays?’
He would be told that the new government of law and order in distant Nairobi had said so. And so it was. The herder would know that the land was now under a new leader. Of course, he would pass on the same news to other far-flung watering holes and so will the message reach even the Kenyan pastoralists wandering illegally in Sudan, Uganda and Ethiopia in search of pasture and water for their flocks.
Perhaps only those citizens in remote Lamu, Kenya’s northernmost Indian Ocean Island near the pirate-ruled seas of Somalia may disapprove my view on the symbolic meaning of this golden matatu band. You see, there are no cars on Lamu island, leave alone matatus. Lamu’s winding labyrinth of medieval streets, so alike to those of Marco Polo’s Italy, allow donkeys and footers only to navigate them. Sometimes either of these two has to step into an open Swahili shop to let the other have the right of way. So you say no matatus, no Michuki (government) in Lamu? Perhaps. At least that is how I saw it having been away myself when the traffic revolution happened and judging it all from where I stood then at the illegal bus terminus behind the Kenya National Archives, waiting for my Airport-bound matatu to reverse and park away from a yawning pothole with murky water in which floated the body of a decomposing dove.
We are now careening down the famous Uhuru Highway dividing Nairobi roughly into two social halves and linking our old port of Mombasa to the cities of the land-locked countries of the Great Lakes Region – Uganda, Rwanda and even Southern Sudan as well as eastern DR Congo. The driver of this nganya, a pimped up matatu, I have just boarded looks like one who can well answer my nagging question about the expectant mood of the nation. He is a true Nairobian, no games. A Mnatti or Nutty-dready as they call themselves in reference and reverence to the Jamaican reggae stars whose songs of struggles against various forms of oppression inspires them. He sports a shock of short, shaggy dreadlocks dyed with henna at their tapering tips and flowing carelessly from under his greasy, sagging rastafarian beret the color of the Ethiopian flag and an emblem of Nairobi’s low-income easterly neighborhoods.
“Ehe! Daaddy! Why the great air of something like no other we have ever seen is about to happen?” I ask in my obviously already outmoded slang as I faintly bob my bald head in time to the booming voice of Bob Marley hit oozing from his second-hand car stereo somewhere.
No response. Only Bob Marley singing of a natural mystic flowing in the air.
“If y’ listen carefulllllyyyy y’ll hear’!”
I ask again looking straight at him as he weaves in and out of the snarl-up in all directions, his eyes darting here and there in search of a traffic police officer waiting to pounce on him. Like many other his matatu has no license or even insurance or worse still he has no license to drive maybe.
Three minute of silence.
Then just as I am about to clear my throat embarrassingly and then repeat myself a little more audibly above the screaming Sheng’ rap now replacing Bob’s number, the most heart-wrenching squeal of tyres I have ever heard in all my life rents the air.
Within seconds a cloud of acrid smoke from the braking tyres immediately swims into the matatu through the open window to my left, making pizza and vanilla vomit fill my mouth. Jesus Christ on a bicycle! What has just happened!
Then comes a shrill screaming diminuendo of warning honks swiftly answered by a screeching crescendo of our driver’s honk.
Then silence as the matatu veers left then right then left again all within a microminute.
A long minute full of heavy breathe all over the matatu follows as the driver regain control of his machine. It is immediately followed by a sudden barrack of protest from the mostly elderly and female passengers at the back of the swaying matatu. In a volley of voices laced with fear and fury, the relieved passengers impulsively attack the cursing driver for the near mishap. Some offer various road safety tips to the guilty young man on how to keep his damned red eyes on the damned road.
“Young man, bwaana weee! Do not transport us to our graves before we eat the fruits of the next year please!” their sarcasm cannot be missed.
“Or before we at least know who has won the elections please Honourable Mr. Quack Driver!” another voice chides in from somewhere in the stuffy back and guffaws at its own cynicism.
All the while, and to the chagrin of the complaining passengers, he remains as calm as a priest dishing out the holy Eucharist. Then out of the blues, as if remembering something, he suddenly cranes his neck way outside his side-window and hurls a rap of slang abuses at the still honking orange Peugeot 504 Station wagon speeding away ahead of us. We had so very narrowly missed smashing into it as it overtook us round an unprotected bend. Our daredevil driver had actually saved us by that impulsive swerve to the left leading us into and out of two huge pot-holes and back to the smooth road again. Heart still beating loudly, I tighten my grip on the laptop, adjusted my glasses and shut the window on my side completely. Then I repeated my question again, at least to ease the palpable tension afloat in the matatu now.
The driver does not look at me though I am the only one sitting with him in the front with only the gears and an old leather pouch full of pirated music VCDS separating us. Instead his defective left eye keeps a steadfast gaze on the road ahead as he chews on his greenish cud of kangeta (khat) even more noisily until its juices come out dripping at the corner of his mouth. He licks the trickle swiftly with his chameleon-like tongue and shouts at his van conductor not to pick any more illegal passengers because we are nearing the Traffic police roadblock at the entrance to the airport. His right eye is all this time monitoring his trembling left hand shifting buttons between radio frequencies on his hidden matatu stereo. Has he also been shaken by the near accident contrary to our beliefs?
Suddenly he throws me a swift glance and says,
“Wait, my man, be patient bana! I search for the latest polls news or at least some gospel gospel rhythms like this, you know, to calm down the passengers, all with a clean heart roho safi bro, you know, passenger is king, kizeee,”
He advises in between a noisy effort at clearing some phlegm or miraa clogging his wiry throat.
Waiting, I do as I stare ahead at the tiny orangish dot ahead of us that is the family car we almost collided side by side with. It finally races round an umpteenth bend and out of sight.
“It is probably taking a family to the now tourist-filled, sun-kissed beaches of Mombasa in readiness to celebrate the outcome of their city votes three days ago and the New Year Eve,” I think.
In Germany, they will be celebrating the night of New Year Eve as “Silverster”. Unlike our jolly past New Year nights that we celebrate mostly by going out, caution is necessary if you chose to do so in some parts of Germany. So it is whispered among fresh foreign students. Older African aliens in Berlin always tell of how in the not so far away past, some young tattooed, blonde (sometimes out of dyeing) Neo-nazis celebrating the countdown to midnight had a habit of scouring the night streets for Auslanders to “end the year with” as they put it in their language. It simply means giving the unfortunate immigrant they find a mugging of his or her life. Auslander is the German or Deutsch if you want, for foreigners. It literally translates into English as “outsiders”. It reminds me of the Gikuyu equivalent of the House of Mumbi. Or rather those who do not belong to this house of the chosen, those who do not descend from the eponymous female forefather of the populous Gikuyu nation.
A sudden noisy shifting of the gear alerts me that we are finally out of the traffic jam and now on the less crowded dual carriage highway to the airport. It had recently been re-tarmacked by one of the ubiquitous Chinese firms winning all the government tenders since the president, imitating his buddy in Harare, turned to the East for aids. The driver adjusts his bulbous self by roughly grinding his bottom on the old, oil-stained sofa cushion propping his short and flabby self on his driver’s seat, and throwing me a longish look he finally answers me in a wild shout of a question, above his noisy stereo,
“Which world do you live in, my friend?”
The sudden answer from the sullen driver, which I had started giving up on, caught me so off-guard.
I was startled and before I could respond or even realize that this was a rhetorical question or an opening gambit to his reply, he hurried on,
“Gava ni gava, watashinda hi kitu watu wapende wasipende! Kama Mishuki alitushinda sisi wasee wa ndai na Mungix, akina ODM ni ni nani? Ni nini akina Mishuki hawata do kuwakulia vako?”
His explanation is so simple and exact that I feel stupid. In Africa, no one defeats the Government of the day unless it wants them to. It has all it needs to win, or force a win. The government in Kenya was going to win whether the people liked it or not because it was the Government. With all the powerful state apparati, coercive, judicial and others at its behest, inherited from the retired dictator what could it not do?
“Welcome to the world of African politics, my friend,” I slowly tell myself or is it him who says this to me?
The sheer obvious nature of this possibility suddenly struck me. Of course, this is it. This is the link. Having lived out of Africa for a while now, I have almost forgotten that things here operate by the continent’s own philosophical principles. Be it “democracy” or what the outside world understands as “a free and fair election”, in Africa all these only become meaningful on African terms.
You ought not question these things and make a fool out of yourself. It is so because it is so.
With his curt, streetwise explanation, whose apathetic overtone was not missed by my literary mind, my man has ended more than just our extraordinary conversation.
At this very moment of understanding his wisdom, I swiftly and brutally assassinate my own political optimism which I have nurtured tenderly from 2002, ever since the forces of democracy in Kenya came together as a coalition of Opposition named the National Rainbow Coalition (NARC) to land a coup de grace on old Moi’s 24 years KANU dictatorship. It is this optimism that I am slaying right now in conclusion that had made me naively believe in the possibilities of democratic governance and free fair elections in 21st Century Africa. It is this same slain optimism that had convinced me to survive only on Turkish rice and tap water thrice a day between September and December last year (2007) so that I could afford my return air ticket to Kenya so as to join other children of our new motherland in exercising our hard-won “democratic right”. It is this slain optimism that gave me the energy to travel half way around the world from Europe to Africa and back in less than five days as the voting fever infected Kenyans at home and abroad. It is the same Afro-optimism that has actually made the atheist me from time to time, light candles in Germany’s gothic cathedrals for Morgan Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) and the Africans of Comrade Bob’s Zimbabwe. It is now dead. That is the news I have for you. Dodo dead. And am I grateful to the Rasta brother, my saviour?
“Long live Afropessimism!” I say!
As we negotiate the final junction of the South Airport Road, the driver throws me a sneering sideway glance, as tears of pain leave me in silence, sizing me up from head to toe like one does to a stranded kid crying outside a chapel at the end of a sermon. His bright eyes rest fleetingly on my wet handkerchief, then on the thin gold ring on my right earlobe, before lingering lustily on my bulging laptop satchel with its red, green, black and white stickers of “I am Proud to be Kenyan” and “Jaluo in the House”. The driver brings the matatu to an abrupt halt and looking at me at the mirror cringes at the sight of a grown up man crying,
He exclaims before clicking his tongue in vernacular as he shakes his dreadlocks to the Beatles entering now with a message that all we need is love. A kihii is an uncircumcised boy or an emotional man.
I alight in silence and forget to shut the door as I dash blindly towards the crowded queue outside the check-in hall at International Flights lounge at Unit Four.
That was then. 48 hours ago. And as if all had just waited for me to get the hell out of Africa, the pregnant boil of expectation that had swollen all over Kenya finally exploded at exactly 15.33 GMT local (Ludwigsfelde) time. It took only 15 minutes after the delayed election results were announced via the government-owned Kenya Broadcasting Corporation on the evening of New Year’s Eve for the opposition strongholds across the major cities and six out of eight provinces in the land to explode. The killings did not take longer after that to start. And in less than an hour all the major international news agencies and broadcasting houses from Yahoo to Radio China International were treating it all as headlines material. And here is breaking news from Africa:
“Hailed for decades as the postcolonial island of peace in a regional sea of anomy, Kenya..….”
About the writer
JKS Makokha (b.1979) is a Kenyan writer living in Berlin, Germany. He is the author of Reading M.G. Vassanji: A Contextual Approach to Asian African Fiction (2009). He has co-edited a new volume of literary criticism, Negotiating Afropolitanism: Essays in Borders and Crossings in African Literature and Orature (2010) with Jennifer Wawrzinek. His poetry has appeared in the Atonal Poetry Review, African Writing, Egophobia, Journal of New Poetry, Journal of Somaliland Studies, Postcolonial Text, New Contrast , Scottish Poetry Review and Stylus Poetry Journal among others.
[i] Good story, good suspense. Let the readers find the words to fill in depending on their perspective of Kenya.