Two years ago, this month, almost to the date, I was a broke, homeless, unemployed young man in my mid-20s. It was almost a year since I had finished my undergraduate from the University of Nairobi, and seven months since I had graduated.
The Higher Education Loans Board(HELB) that had loaned me money to study was getting impatient with me, and was about to start slapping me with Sh 5,000 monthly, as a fine for not starting to repay the loan. It does so to every graduate. Once you finish college, they give you a year to get yourself a job or start a business and start repaying the loan.
I had gone there (HELB offices) to plead with them to extend the grace period. I met some woman who attended to me. She was in her better side of 30s or early 40s, slightly overweight, certainly from maternal obligations. She attended to me perfunctorily. I explained to her my predicament and she told me,
“That is the new policy, you have to start repaying, even if it is Ksh 1,000, otherwise we will be fining you Ksh 5,000 until you get a job.” She said without even looking my direction. Was I smelling of urine she didn’t want to look at me?
“Like how much is it from Kisii to here?’ she asked and I told her it is Ksh 900. “Well, go put that money in MPESA and send it instead of coming here with an explanation.” She went back to Facebook.
I tried pleading again, she dismissed me. I have never felt more rejected by my family, friends and now the government. I contemplated walking out to the glass window and throwing myself from the 13th or is it the 15th floor of Anniversary Towers where HELB harasses individuals into repaying their loans. Death was an attractive option. After all, it had started a revolution in Tunisia. But I decided against it.
I walked down the streets of Nairobi feeling dejected. As a man, I was on my own. I was at that state of unemployment where you have become a bother to the family and friends. You have ‘small small’ debts from 15 of your closer friends and 13 not so close friends. All those debts amounted to about Ksh 23, 000. You know that state where individuals start avoiding you or when you meet your friend or relative, he or she gives you Ksh 200 or 500 just to keep a safe distance from you. You know that state when those who think they care send you job recruitment adverts in the newspaper and links as well without sending Ksh 100 needed for the cyber and photocopying the documents.
You know that state where your college wardrobe is aging and your shoes alone can tell a long story. When your shirt collar is either faded or torn, mostly both. That state when you have lost weight from not eating well or playing the physically exhausting game of dodging your landlord. That state where you can’t even enjoy a beer because the last time you had a proper meal was eleven days ago. That state you are so vulnerable that even working for a researching firm that pays you Ksh 200 a day is welcome, but you stay in Rongai, so it only gets to cover only the fare, you give up in the third day without giving your employer any notice. You have been reduced to small errands by family and friends so that you can keep the change.
You know that state when you start asking whether your degree is worthwhile. You were told that BA is a bad degree to pursue and you now regretting never listening to their advice. Now those who were adamant that you had made the wrong move are having fits of schadenfreude and insensitively giving you the ‘I told you so’ talk. Your pride cannot allow you to take up some jobs like construction or sales. Because your former college mates who took up sales abandoned the job after receiving their first retainer that they used to cover some debts. Times were hard. Men. Self doubt and self-loathe sets in.
As I walked down the streets, my mind was totally blank. A vehicle would have run over me, and I would have been thankful. Sometimes, death can save one a lot of the world’s miseries. Sometimes you cannot figure out why you exist. You are broke and someone wants to buy you up to ten beers and talk to you about how he gets laid every day and how much he spends on women. Yet broke men don’t get laid as often, unless they have an understanding girlfriend.
Do you really know when you are broke and some beautiful woman you fancy want to be taken out. You are broke and your siblings want some Sh 300 and you cannot afford. You are broke and your mum or dad is sick and you cannot afford to pay the hospital bill and you have to bank on a relative or a benevolent friend to save you.
If you have never been employed in your life, all this might sound untrue or exaggerated but it happens. I know friends who are not yet employed, three years since we left campus. On top of their HELB loan and interest, they are being fined Ksh 5,000 monthly for two years now and counting. No government or student body can intervene. I mean, there are no jobs and starting a business is not as easy as motivational speakers make it sound. There are young men and women going through hell as they await a job.
The April preceding that June, I had gone to South Sudan to try stuff with a South Sudan friend, but it never worked. I ended up drinking too much Tusker and behaving recklessly in Juba, I had to come back. But, things were not working out and Nairobi was not my home. Now, I had to find a way out of my misery. Crime was not an option. While my business acumen is above average, raising capital was not going to be easy. No one can trust an honest youth without any security.
That weekend, I had gone to visit my boy Plato and I discovered he was fairing just as bad. He only had magazines and hope to himself. We talked ourselves into the night. The following day, another South Sudanese friend asked me if I could go back to South Sudan and try my hand in some social work in the State of Northern Barl-el-Ghazal. That is closer to Chad and Central African Republic. I asked Plato if we should give it a shot. We really did not have a choice but venture out of the country.
Before we left, with the few dollars we had been given for our shopping, we did some small time buying a few shirts and pairs of shoes down at Kirinyaga Road. But of the possessions we bought, the best were two Intelligent Life magazines for Ksh 50.
When The Economist first advertised that they will be publishing a lifestyle magazine quarterly six or so years ago, I was enthralled. That is because The Economist, despite their patronizing, if racist tone, is simply the best newsmagazine in the world. Their inherently sarcastic and satirical way of writing, peppered with endless British wit is what I like the most. It is not easy to write business and economic issues laced with humour, wit and judgment that is often wrong. Their maiden Intelligent Life magazine was something else, but it was expensive, retailing at more than Ksh 800, it was beyond my reach.
We went to South Sudan with the two old magazines from 2010. And a few books, definitely bought from the streets of Nairobi. Life was bad. By the way, we travelled the more than 800KM kilometres from Juba to Awiel by road, spending a night at Rumbek, the central most place in Africa. Ask anyone who have been to South Sudan to explain to you how dangerous Rumbek is?
That night we slept outside the Land Cruiser we were traveling in. We were in the company of some Ugandans who simply could not shut up the whole 27 hours the journey lasted. We got to Aweil two days later, with raptured intestines and a bodies aching from a vehicle traveling on a rough road at a speed of 120KM/h. When people say that they have feel like shit and they have not traveled more than 800 kilometres on a rough road, I wonder what they are talking about.
We did arrive in Aweil and had to take some jalopy of a vehicle that looked like it had it had ferried soldiers during the First World War, to the village we were going to stay, that was another 20 or so Kilometres. We still had to take motorbikes to the actual village that was going to be our home for six months. I felt if we moved an inch we would be in Cameroon.
It was like being in Mars for me. The vegetation was strange. It was a coastal environment in a desert setting. The journey by road had lasted cumulatively 47 hours. You will think we were the only Kenyans there but shock on us, we discovered there were thousands of Kenyans, who like us, had been rejected by the country, trying to make sense of life by working and doing business for the South Sudanese people. There were young and old Kenyans. There were professionals. There were prostitutes. There were those into jua kali. Medical quacks. Name it. All in all, they were trying to make an honesty living using their bodies and skills.
Daily, we dealt with primary school teachers and the NGO types. Now primary school teachers are a handful lot and the most small-minded persons you will have to deal with in the world. Not all of them, of course. Some of my primary school teachers have had an everlasting impact on me, more than a decade later. But the ones we had to deal with were a painful reminder of what it is like to deal with unthinking adults. Like adult politicians who are sycophants. Anyway.
Life in Sudan was tough and shitty to say the least. There were no clouds and the sun hung lower than anywhere else on earth. At around two, you could see the heat waves rising from the ground with violent vengeance. No work would be done in the afternoon, other than sleep under a shade and hope a desert scorpion doesn’t sting you. God, how do guys even live in such conditions?
Now what made our lives worthwhile were the books and the magazines we carried. They changed our lives forever. While an avid reader from when I was young, living in isolation and harsher environmental conditions made me a better appreciator and critic of the written word. It is like giving a prisoner a book or his favourite magazine.
I read Tom Clancy. No one can spin a bigger yarn on International Relations and succeed like Clancy. I reread Nelson DeMille, my favourite writer at the moment and was terrifically enchanted by his dry wit and his main character in his books, John Corey, who is every bit DeMille’s alter ego.
But the two magazines had an everlasting impact on us. Intelligent Life is easily the best elitist and esoteric magazine in the world. It is the peak of excellent journalism. When you read the Intelligent Life, you become intelligent, literally. Their way of writing, topic selection, the way they select their writers is unparalleled.
One feature that changed our lives was a feature by the veteran Guardian writer, Ian Jack. The feature was titled ‘Five Boys’. More than 6000-word stories, about a picture that was taken in the 1930s and went on define the issue of class in Britain for more than seven decades. In the picture were five boys, two from a seemingly rich background about to attend a cricket match between Eton College and Harrow School (the two most exclusive and elitist school in England), and other three from a seemingly poor background.
The two boys from a wealth background were well-dressed in perfect English standards and were regarded as the toffs. There was a snootiness to their mannerisms and a contemptuous disregard towards the other three boys who looked every bit poor with oversized clothes. The three were called the toughs. The poor boys looked at the other two with boyish admiration but knew their place in society. The three hapless ones used to help individuals with luggage or showing direction and other small jobs during such matches.
Now Ian Jack traced the life of the boys and how it panned out. Of the two toffs from the wealthy background, one died of diphtheria in India a few weeks later after the picture was taken. The other developed mental problems and died sometime in 80s. The three from the poor background lived to old age and are all alive (as of 2010) somewhere in England. From that iconic photo, a feature so powerful, it will make you cry emerged. We read the story. And reread it. And read it some more. And for six months, we enjoyed the magazines, no end.
And when we got back, inspired by the story, my boy Plato, a gifted writer of enormous proportions wrote two polemic features that earned him an instant job in one of the leading media house country. Recently, while writing a piece on religion in Kenya, I discovered one such piece was on top Google searches in the country.
That brings me, to the point of this looooong blog:Newspaper and book vendors. The man who sold us the magazines was the old and jaded vendor, who could only sell his wares in the outskirts of the CBD. Probably, he has never read the magazine and will not know that the literally merit of the magazines he sold us is otherworldly in a good way. He just receives the magazines, old and worn out and displays them in the street, where they absorb the dust like a piece of cotton takes in stains. Individuals who sell books, magazines, newspapers and the likes may be like any other person in the demand and supply chain, but they are special.
They facilitate civilization. You may think Kenyans don’t read, but you are grossly mistaken. The fact that book vendors are constantly in business, means there is a demand for the books. And sometimes, while you think only you knows the value of a good novel, you always shocked when you discover somebody else who knows the value of a good book or magazine. I once saw someone tweet about Nelson DeMille and my heart skipped a bit.
In deed when you are a book reader and you found someone who has similar tastes, is like discovering a lover. You discover they love the anecdotes, the sentence structures and even how various authors turn a phrase in the same way that you like them. Personally, I never understand how an adult can go about his or her life without reading two books a month at the very least.
Yet book vendors don’t know the exact amount of joy they give us daily. Like when you buy an odd book that you are sure you are the only one who owns it in the country. Such book is so rare you can steal quotes and lines and no one will ever accuse you of plagiarism. And buying a good book from the street goes with serendipity and spontaneity. It is pure luck and a question of being at the right place, at the right time.
Book vendors are mostly men. Mostly youthful men and older men. Middle-aged men are not so common. Partly, it has to do with the fact that the youths are the unemployed ones who are trying to make some meaningful living. And older men it seems have been in the streets forever or are the class of Kenyans who go through life without ever getting a white-collar job so they end up in the street selling knowledge and wisdom to us. They ply their trade in the crowded and harsh streets of Nairobi. They have their constant fans. They have random people who stop by. Some read and can occasionally recommend a good book to you.
Rains are a big inconvenience but they have learned to deal with them.
I pray that God blesses the newspaper and book vendors in the street. Not just because they are part of the chain that ensures I keep my job in the newspaper industry. But most importantly they are the biggest conveyor belt of civilization. What they do is more important than what radio presenters and TV presenters do in the country. And is it just me, or part of the job description of a radio presenter in Kenya is to be profoundly nonsensical. They definitely get paid more than writers, but anyway.
We all must appreciate vendors. Books in bookshops are too expensive, for life. Not many of us can afford. And vendors by selling second-hand books to us ensure that knowledge is shared. And knowledge is what will liberate the people from the Duales and the Kajwangs of this Kenya.