Thursday, 26 May 2016


A Motorcycle rider at work

You are running late, last night you did not sleep so well. Your neighbour came home late. He uses a stove to cook. He forgot he ran out of paraffin so between the cussing and lighting his charcoal jiko- whose carbon monoxide almost literally killed you in your sleep, he woke you up. It took you tossing and turning, gazing at the ceiling and two hours to fall back asleep.

So you hastily call your bodaboda guy (most people have one nowadays). They come in handy when you are running behind your schedule. Its 6am in the morning and you are freezing out of your mind so you tuck your head and hands in your warm cardigan. You tell him to speed up as you have some urgent issues to attend to at the office. You pass through the frail wooden bridge. You close your eyes tightly as if a slight glance at the flowing mess will thrust you in, but you can smell the stench and you can hear the sewage roaring as it flows downstream.

It’s Tassia, so you swerve potholes and heaps of garbage. And your motorist begins a conversation, that judging by his anaemic tone stokes bitter feelings. His voice is laced with a defeatist attitude as he lament the shoddy work of a contractor who was working on that road, three months down the line, it is worse than before.

He attempts to que to into the conversation but it’s too cold and you are running late so your brain is scattered all over the place. “Mm”, you respond strongly and persistently to assure him you are listening and that you agree.

Its 9pm. You rush to catch a matatu back home. It has been raining so the traffic jam is nuts. You seat quietly and transit from a reverie to a trance then finally to a slumber. Suddenly someone taps you roughly at the shoulder, it’s the conductor collecting his dues.

Then there is this man seated behind you. He is most probably in his mid-forties. He has four kids. The eldest finished his secondary education last year but missed the set mark to join the University as a regular student. There are two who are currently in high school, and he has not cleared there fee arrears. Then there is the last born. He is in a private school. He wanted to give him the best chance in life so he enrolled him in a private school. I mean! Let’s face it public schools are quite crappy. This man is loaded- no I don’t mean the ‘sponsor’ kind of loaded, I mean loaded with puzzles about his four children’s future. “Will he afford to pay college? Will his children have a better story than his?”

He hands the conductor seventy shillings without making eye contact.

mzee gari ni mia, lipa ama ushuke” he retorts

What follows is a nightmare of a conversation that hinders you from any sleep. Finally the man hesitantly reaches for his pocket, grudgingly hands him a ten shilling coin, then a five and a ten.

Hizo ni ngapi?

Bado haijatosha

Nirudishie hiyo nikupe hii mia

You mean all this while he knew he had a hundred shilling note?

But he is not done.

It’s late and cold, every passenger is quiet and in some reverie or deep thought. This time he begins to rant about the sky rocketing of the prices of basic commodities-

When fuel prices go high you matatu people are so fast to hike the fare prices, but you can’t bring them down when the prices stabilise.”  

He tries to get the woman seated on his left to join the conversation. She just flashes a tough look that melts down to a brief simple grin. May be to signify she agrees with him. After which she goes back to her world that she keenly gazed into before she was interrupted.

The man now turns to the guy seated on his right. He hopes he can save him from having a monopoly. He does not even flinch he is on his earphones- maybe he is listening to some loud music or he is not listening to any music at all.

And he finally taps your shoulder. But all you want to do is just sleep since the traffic has come to a complete halt. Not that you don’t have anything to complain about but you already had your share of the conversation in the morning.

Your mhindi employer has finally agreed to give you some time off work and you want to use this opportunity to visit your parents in Kitui. You wake up early to catch a bus at Machakos country bus. You have carried a lot of paper bags and the conductors hustle you trying to get you to board their vehicle. You are scared you might be pick pocketed. So you put on a stern face and tell them off. It still does not help. Either way you make up your mind and board werewolf.

Unlike the monster figure of the mythology of Hollywood that turns on a full moon, this one never turns. It is simply the fastest bus with a bad ass driver that could get one to Kitui in the shortest time possible. Although just like the monster ‘animal’, this one is also scary especially when you put the ungodly speed into consideration.

Just before the driver leaves, a man hops in. You notice him because he first scans nearly every passenger in the thirty three capacity bus. As the driver swerves past men hurling carts and pot holes in Kariokor the man stands up, holding a gigantic New International Version bible on his right hand.

Obviously he is the fervent evangelist who is going to read you some scary verses about judgement day then persuade you and the other passengers to ‘Endeleza kazi ya bwana’ through giving.

He introduces himself, but for sure he does not need to; you know them, and so does every passenger aboard. He reads from (a verse on giving), and you wonder- this one is well experienced, he cut to the chase! He goes on and on about how giving to the good works of the lord is important. The message not stoical, because you have heard it double digit times. But oh! How grateful you are to God you are not the passenger sitting right next to preacher man, the spitting- if she knew she would have carried an umbrella.

Then comes the prayer part, he insists that everybody closes their eyes. No he does not- he scares everyone to close their eyes by throwing verses about the punishment that awaits those who do not respect the lord. Now that you are scared (most people cave in upon the mentioning of judgement day). He prays for every parent aboard (unmoved- you are not a parents), then he prays for every passenger to have a promotion at work (oh! Now he has your full attention your expectant heart is touched in fact you are tempted to lift your hands), he curses accidents and covers the road with the blood of Jesus Christ- then he finishes up.

But it’s not a day unless there is offertory. So preacher man hammers his final point- “Tutolee bwana sadaka ndio mtumishi wake aendelee kufanya kazi.” Ninety percent of the passengers aboard, sink in to their activities completely ignoring the man of God. 

The young man next to you who has been chewing miraa the whole time, mumbles something in a heavy Kao accent “Kwani lazima aitishe sadaka?”
The evangelist resorts to his favourite mechanism- “The day you die only the work you have done for God will matter” (These threats!) And it works, as always. In fact that moment your mind takes you to places you do not want to go-

Just before Kitui town there is an accident black spot. It has been said that every 7 days there is always an accident there. You don’t know the last time there was an accident, you feel cornered and for sure you do not want to gamble especially with your life. You reach into your pocket and assemble all the coins you received as change, it’s mostly in one and five shilling denomination, you almost feel embarrassed but you give it to him anyway. He looks at the money, at you and proceeds to collect from other passengers. With that look you feel he has moved from raffling your feathers to plucking them, because that look spoke disdain. May be even a hex.

Isn’t it perplexing to really think about what we go through in a day as Kenyans from different walks of life? (I should just say financial walks of life, right?) One needs to take a first class photo for Instagram, another is hoping to get that job they interviewed for seven days ago, another is hoping his boss at the construction site pays him his three week wages, another is making plans for a business trip to Dubai, or a farmer is preparing to till his land.   

Tuesday, 17 May 2016


A crop field

Ukambani is a coined term used to refer to the Kenyan lower Eastern region, predominantly occupied by the ethnic Kamba community. To some people Ukambani is synonymous with hunger and starvation. The truth though is every part of Ukambani is unique and some are agricultural hotbeds (contrary to popular belief), producing quality products all year round. The region has three counties: Machakos, Kitui and Makueni. I hail from the first. Yes, that county where everything is done with flair. We have ambulances; at least one in each sub-county and some patrol cars. When these arrived, people were so excited with valid reasons- most of us had never seen an ambulance on our village road or a police patrol car pack at the chief’s office. We made headlines for a great reason.

We believed we were like the hot kid in the estate who has rich parents, attends the best school and has the most hyped birthday parties. The media was awash with stories of how cool our county was. Folks from other counties wanted to be in our county (am serious! you should have heard the conversations in the local market when those cars arrived.)

But, just like every part of Ukambani is unique so are the sub counties that make up Machakos county. When I say I come from Machakos County so often people show glitter on their faces. Of course I do that with intent to improve dress myself with the colourful ‘cool kid’ image. I feel good when I believe people think I come from a cool place (who knows, maybe they don’t think what I think they are thinking).

But trust me my rural home is another image of the ornate county. We don’t have tarmacked roads, we don’t have flowers planted by the road side, and we still rely on kerosene lamps for lighting- except for few middle class families who can afford solar panel installation. Nevertheless we still ride on the ‘fancy’ name of Machakos County when need arises (mostly for our egos).

The prominent source of livelihood in my home is agriculture. And right now things are very rosy.


Yes, to a time that was turbulent. A time when Mother Nature had conspired against us. The year 2009. The devolved unit Machakos County as we know it today was not there and there was certainly no flair. President Kibaki sat on the presidency seat and we had a Prime Minister’s office.

In a year we have two planting seasons- November/ December and April/ May; Short rains and Long rains, respectively. The 2008 November/ December harvest was fair, way below the needed amount. In fact due to low supply of maize (our staple crop), the prices were low. But agriculture is everything to us, we sold the maize to settle loans, send children to school, buy extra pair of shoes and clothes for the family and saved a little for consumption as we waited for the April/ May planting season in 2009.

In March 13th 2009, local dailies wrote of a warning by the Meteorological Department …the long rains expected between March and may are likely to be depressed.’ By the end of March the prospects of rain were dim and aloof. Despite the imminent reality of drought and warning by the Meteorological department farmers in my rural home went ahead to plant. I mean, farming is main way they knew to survive, it was all they had; so they buckled up and rode to the market to purchase seeds whose prices had already skyrocketed. They ploughed putting in their time, money and hope and looked above for the rains. But nothing came; their money, time and hope remained under the soil and begun to rot.

As months went by, hunger begun to bite; starvation and despair became the stark order of the day. Most families did not have an alternative source of income or food, and life another turn for the worse. The bodies of some sick and old people gave in, so they left this troubled world hopefully to a better one. Pupils who could not attend class on empty stomachs chose to stay at home. And the cattle begun to just fall down and die. The walls were caving in and the clamour was heard by the government (SMH) and the corporate society. It wasn’t only people from my rural home that were crying, it was also people from; Mandera, Wajir, Garrissa, Isiolo, Marsabit, Moyale…(you name it).

The Kenyan government known to have a fetish for eleventh hour action; appealed to the international community for help and declared famine a national emergency. The Corporate Society led initiatives to crowdfund: My own home area became a beneficiary of the ‘Mutui Museo’ (good neighbour) initiative. Though I was miles from home still pursuing my Secondary Education, I felt the impact of the famine; as my family to a good extent relied on income from agriculture. 

The same ill fate befell us in 1984/ 85. In fact there are households that never recovered from the 84/ 85 drought. As they buried friends who had fallen and their cattle, they buried some of their dreams and expectations of life, their lives were forever altered for the worse.


We have not been darned to this cold and sad history. Like I told you things are quite rosy right now.

By October 2015 heavy rains started across the country and we joined the rhythm. We had a bumper harvest that season. We are already into the March/ May planting season, the rains have fallen graciously and our galleries are still full.

(Can I get an AMEN!!?)

An excited woman shows off her produce

But you must know that a bumper harvest means different things for different people at home.

There is a single mum who will sell off part of her produce to settle her children’s school fee arears. She has been selling lies to the school principal to keep them in school; and so this is her time to mend all the broken promises. She will also buy them new school uniform and new shoes, the ones they are currently using cannot see a tailor anymore and she needs them to feel comfortable and confident as they study. Oh! She hopes they can change the stories of their lives.

Then there is the mama with an insatiable appetite for posh ‘kitenges’. She will call the dealer to negotiate a price for the produce. Immediately she receives her dues, she will ride a bodaboda to pay the tailor a visit. If the kids and husband are lucky, they will be factored in the budget, but she must come first. Then she will be rest assured of ‘beating’ competition all the women in church as far as dress code is concerned.

There is the alcoholic husband and dad. Since he is married to ‘Karua’, he will wait for her to leave for a ‘Kyathe’ (merry go round meet-up), then call a dealer whom he had already made prior plans with. He won’t even negotiate a price for the produce. “Leta tu chenye uko nayo”, he will hastily say. After all he just needs enough to pay for his accrued bill at the local brew den. Then he can drink on credit again. The dealer will pay him peanuts. Then give him a lift on his motor bike to his usual brew den. He will caution the dealer against using a route where they might meet with his wife (‘Karua’ is known to be very unpredictable). On learning her husband is going on a drinking spree, she might pounce on him. Not that he is scared of drama (he is used to it!), he does not want a broken leg; see, he just recovered from a broken arm and nose!

After coming home drunk for several nights, ‘Karua’ will make classified investigations to find out whether her husband has been paying for his drinks. Then she will discover that he already cleared his bill and has promised the brewer he will bring more money. Because she is a brilliant woman she will inspect the sacks of food in the store, and know that her husband has been ‘stealing’.

She will caution him against spending the harvest on frivolous leisure: But she won’t stop there, no! She will purchase a big ass brand new padlock and lock up the store then put the keys around her neck. To get the keys he (her husband) will have to literally run her down and over. But you know he can’t!!

Additional info: I want to thank my dad (who is quite literally a walking library as far as history is concerned), for the assistance he offered me while preparing this piece. ‘Am lucky to have you as a partner in this journey. Asante’

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