The people you meet once and they leave a mark

About three years ago, I wrote a literary review piece in the Sunday Nation on why we don’t have successors to Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Chinua Achebe. My argument being that despite  Africa experiencing serious civil wars, there hasn’t been any discernible work of literature from the regions most affected.  Yet wars and conflicts often give us the best literature. The few books written, have not been met with the same acclaim as Ngugi, Achebe and the  rest of the first generation of writers once received. Until Chimamanda Adichie arrived in the scene, and even her, her breakthrough novel was Half of a Yellow Sun, which took us back to the Biafra War.

A few days later, I received an email from a man who introduced himself as Kalyan Mukherjee. He was working for A New Delhi based newspaper called Millennium Post (MP). Together with a man called Aman, an Indian-Kenyan, based in Nairobi, they had a monthly a page in the newspaper called African Rising.

Kalyan wanted Africans to write on the page, so that Indians can get to understand African better. Four years ago, the narrative in town was Africa was on the rise and every ‘big’ country was milking this narrative for all its worth. They were the first Indians to notice this gap, and they moved to bridge it. Interestingly, for all the massive trade India does with Africa, it is often overlooked by the media.

Kalyan wanted me to work with Aman in Nairobi to write, what I felt was supposed to be a general appraisal of Africa’s top 5 writers; Ngugi, Wole Soyika, Ben Okri, J.M Coetze and Achebe (his list, not mine). He too wanted me to write about the Caine Prize Winners since 1999, examine how much of it was Literature, and how much was fashion. He also wanted an interview with any three contemporary writers.

“Kwani? 2012” had just marked their 10th anniversary with the publication Yvonne Awuor’s Dust and Chimamanda Adichie’s Americanah. Both writers were in town, I bought the two books, had them autographed, took a picture with both. Sadly, I lost the two autographed books, but I’m proud that I shook hands with Chimamanda. Suffice to say that I stayed the whole night, to have the autographs.

Had Kalyan approached me earlier, I would have squeezed an interview with Chimamanda for his third request.

Anyway,  with Aman in Nairobi and some bit of research, I came up with a topic. And Aman would accompany me to the interviews. Aman was in charge of research and the link between Africa and India. And Kalyan was the boss based in India.

I looked at his request, and settled to write a piece that examines the literary trends since independence era in the early 1960s, all the way to 2012. I aptly, titled the piece, “Stop, Start, Stop; Africa’s Literature in a Discontinuous Transition. Binyavanga Wanaina, the founder of Kwani? and its long serving editor, and great writer himself, Billy Kahora, agreed to be interviewed for our story.

We arrived in Binyavanga’s home with Aman, on a sunny weekday morning. Binyavanga lives in forested part of Nairobi, where the birds chirp to him as he writes in his veranda. I admired this set up as perfectly befitting of a writer and I told myself, that as soon as possible, I need such a setup, away from the hooting, pollution and the bad neighbours who don’t even say hi.

Talking to Binyavanga was enlightening. Hate him. Love him. He is an intellectual. We had a healthy discussion and I remember him telling me how he once asked Achebe on why he stopped writing after 1975, and Achebe told him that, “everyone he knew had either gone to exile or dead.” He shifted more to essays as the room for creative expression had been stifled. Remember Nigeria and in deed across Africa, the Cold War had given excuse for every stupid dictator to cramp down on individual rights and freedoms and writers were routinely targeted. Achebe would later move to the United States, in the 1980s, and was involved in an accident in the early 1990s that condemned to a life on a wheel-chair. He died there in 2013.

It is always good to hear these stories from people who have met greats. Bill Kahora on his end asserted that contemporary writers are not institutionally powerful as the first-generation writers. The two interviews and my story, was unlike anything I had ever doen for the local media, where literature and anything literary is given the shortest shrift of time.

It was a great experience working with Aman. They wanted to hire me, soon after the essay and the two interviews were published (and they delivered me the hard copies of the Millennium Post with the story.)

Aman is a crepuscular who sent me tons of email, on any research topic he wanted us to explore for the next edition. I worked with him, but he wanted me to help him source adverts for their newspaper for a commission, stressing that the page was their brainchild with Kalyan. And I was entitled to a good commission. Sadly, in marketing, I am as terrible as Uhuru is, in managing a country (he himself said he can’t fight corruption).

Besides, they were not paying me a retainer. Or any discernible salary.

“Silas, we will give you exposure. You will be read in India and your name will grow,” Aman would tell me, when driving around with him, chasing air.

Sadly, no landlord in Nairobi can accept exposure as rent, and I couldn’t keep up writing for them, though I did write a couple of pieces for them. The last being, when President Obama came to Kenya last year. I did a report on what the feeling on the ground was, on Obama’s visit to his father’s home as a president of the United States. We remained friends, and I would send them a story, that I thought was relevant, such as when Chinua Achebe died, I wrote the obituary for them.

Sometime in 2013, Kalyan visited Kenya from India. He came to explore on what possibly can be done to make the page better and attract adverts from Kenya and Africa. Besides being a through journalist, he was a great writer, and had done a number of novels and short stories, mostly in his native language. He was a supporter of Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s crusade for the people to write in their native languages, if I remember well. He actually loved what Binyavanga Wainaina told us that Salman Rushdie (he of the Satanic Verses fame) may not be the most widely read writer in India, because he writes in English.

Kalyan also had a movie production house that had produced movies and commercials. He loved his job.

When he came, we met at some restaurant at the National Museum.

The first impression I got, was that Kalyan was an abrasive, dismissive and choleric guy. If he was your editor, he will be the guy who will be very strict with deadlines. But, we got talking.

He was a lover of literature and we hit it off quite well.  We discussed Achebe and other greats. His favourite African novel was House Boy, by the Cameroonian author, Ferdinand Oyono. House Boy is a classic, originally published in French, and there is no novel, that easily exposed the stupidity and the humanity of the colonizers than this particular masterpiece. As pieces of African satire goes, this tragic novel is the best.

When he asked me, who is the best contemporary writer at the moment, I said without thinking that it was Chimamanda Adichie.

“She is not. She is not a writer. She is an historian,” he said, adding, “What she does is chic lit.”

That was a bit harsh. Granted, Chimamanda is not your ordinary great storyteller. But she has it. And I have had a number of people complain that she is not all that she is cracked up to be. Aman looked on, since literature was not is specialty. But I saw, Aman had immense respect for the boss, who was now in his 50s.

We did agree to keep on working where necessary, and even without my participation, they kept producing the African page, and they always shared a PDF page with me.

We had not been in touch, since I left for the United States.

Earlier in the week I saw a story that some Indian hotel chain will be opening a five star in the Mara. And I sent Aman a link to that story, if it may be of any use to them. He replied back and told me,

“Sad news,” he started, and I assumed, may be they killed the page, and the message went on…

“Unfortunately Kalyan was diagnosed with cancer of the lungs last December and passed away on the 4th of August this year. He was very fond of your work and attitude towards journalism.”

I was petrified. That is not how life ends. Anyway, I got a chance to meet a great soul, who like me, spoke his mind and a man, whose career trajectory I admired and envied. It is a path I would love to follow.

I only met him once, and he left a great impression. I admired his hard work, the serious attitude towards work, the willingness to take risks when it is so cushy in the comfort zone.

He is now gone, but he touched my life, gave me a chance to be read in India.

For the few years we knew each other and communicated, I am thankful.

May he rest well.

 

 

Advertisements

Why God makes sense to me

There are only two human beings that I have ever wanted to have a drink with. That is comedian George Carlin and Christopher Hitchens, the public intellectual and polemicist so beloved for his erudite writings and debates in the British and American media.

Too bad that both are dead. But the body of work they left behind will stay with us for a long time. I have imbibed their books, their debates, interviews, and in Carlin’s case, I never had enough of his stand-ups. His autobiography (with Tony Hendra), Last Word, is one of the most refreshingly and brutally honest biographies that I have ever read.

As a conservative religious person, it may sound a bit odd that I love these two men who were famously irreligious. Christopher Hitchens identified himself as an atheists and antitheists and in 2007 wrote a book titled, god Is Not Great; How Religion Poisons the Mind. The G in God in the book’s title cover was not capitalized, a direct mockery to the Christian practice of capitalizing God as a form of respect to our creator. The book was a New York Times best seller. He wrote on so many other topics, but Hitchens will always remain one of the most visible atheist to ever walk on earth.

George Carlin most famous routine was when he took swipes at religion. He particularly ripped apart the ten commandments (easily the best constitution that alone can run the world) and the very concept of God and heaven.

All told, even in their most acerbic, contemptuous self when questioning God, they were funny, intellectual and made earthly sense. They received rapturous and the throatiest of laughter and the wildest cheers that would turn any performer red with envy.

I admire intelligent people. Like Solomon, the only thing I pray for is knowledge and wisdom. Intelligent people like Albert Einstein always baffle me. Their discoveries, their inventions and their creations have made life all the more worthwhile. Talented individuals such as musicians, artists, sportsmen enrich our lives greatly than we acknowledge. To me, I see these things as God-given. And it is all about how you decide to use your gifts.

                                                                                 ***

I was born in Lang’ata, and grew up in Kibera. My parents and relations went to a Pentecostal church, whose only recollection I have was a greenish-tent, not unlike a military camp, with concrete pebbles on the floor. With my uncle Cliff (we were about the same age), we would run around the church, and when it was time to collect the offering, we would pick the concrete pebbles, and offer them. When they dropped in the sack they use to collect the offering, it will make the clanging sound against other coins. We would later use the coins to buy sweets and other things that we used to indulge in as children.

Later, when we moved to the country side, there was an Adventist church across the road, and naturally, that is where we started going. I spent my Saturdays mostly listening to KBC’s Nick-Okanga Naftali, whose whereabouts, try as I can, I can’t seem to get an accurate answer (is he dead, or not, for instance). He had a show, in mid-morning Saturday, whose crowning moment was always playing some Soukous music, and it was always a double delight, when he played Madilu Systems (having quit TPOK Jazz, and now a Soukous musician, I loved him better or any number from that monster of an album that star-studded album of Soukous Stars gave us in 1994, of which Ngouma Lokito’s Mama Rhoda that was sung in Swahili and Lingala was my favourite).

My mother was not that strict on me when it came to church matters, even though she always attended the church, mostly as a backbencher. But when she died and I went to live with my uncle, things changed. My uncle is a very religious man and he insisted that we all had to go to church.

I joined an Adventist boarding school that took Adventist doctrines too seriously. And with a friend called Dennis, we formed a singing partnership and we called ourselves, Parapanda Duet. I was baptized when I was 12, soon afterwards. As a teenager, my faith was still shaky, not grounded in anything solid.

I joined a Catholic secondary school. Here, attending a Mass was mandatory every Sunday and on Wednesday mornings. We hated being woken up to go to church. For Adventists, our initial religious teachings, often cast Catholics as an antagonistic church that went against our beliefs. And for us, we always viewed the forced attendance of the Mass as religious persecution. Many were the days when we would argue endlessly, on which is the true church of God, the Adventists unequivocal that there denomination is derived from the precise teachings of the Bible, bone of contention was always which is the right day for Sabbath. This argument never went away and bore its ugliest head when the Pope visited Kenya last year.

Kisii region has a large Adventist population, almost 40 to 50 per cent of Kisiis are SDAs. That means in the school’s 1000-odd students, roughly half were Adventists. Thus, we were given Saturday mornings after manual work, to attend our Sabbath and with difficulty and reluctance we were granted Saturday afternoons as well.

Our patron who was in charge of examinations and a great biology teacher. He actually made me an ‘A’ student in biology and my unending interest on how our body works. Had I become a medical doctor, I would have had him to thank.  Mr Ben Maranga, was a man of God. He taught me more about the Bible than anyone else has ever taught me. And it is here I started understanding my own faith.

As an orphan, it was easy to take refuge in God as an escapist strategy, if only to understand why would God take my parents away at such a young age. But through Maranga, I started to understand the bigger existential problems with life and why you need God, if you are to lead a saner life. It was a learning process. By the time I finished high school and joined campus, I was a regular church attendee.

However,  through the vicissitudes of campus life, especially after second year with the inevitable, if patent, discovery of alcohol, clubbing (clubbing never made sense to me, but blame it on peer pressure, or is it pleasure), I stopped being so ardent, relaxed my attitudes on religion and started to study religion on my own.

Before I forget, there was this smallish encyclopedia, The Student Companion that we used to read in high school. I once read on the part, of things to always avoid: avoid discussing religion with people, it is an argument no one will ever win, and it leaves people bitter and more divided. And made so much sense and I never argued with Catholics about their day of worship or their church’s doctrines.

***

The reason I have outlined, even though briefly, my personal journey, is because, like every Kenyan, my path was not any different from most of you. I became an Adventist first, not because of any intellectual and spiritual conviction, but because it was the most proximate denomination and naturally I was converted, long before I could understand what religion is all about. Between 15 to 18 years, at least I could discern the Bible, with the help of Mr Maranga, who I will say never tried to proselytize as much as make us understand the Bible and God in general. Anyone from a different denomination could have learnt something from Maranga about God.

Most denominations in Kenya spread by design. When missionaries came, they tried to convert people in areas that other churches had not yet arrived. You go to Meru, you will find the Methodists, Central Kenya, you will find the Presbyterians, in Ukambani and Rift Valley, Africa Inland Church is quite common. Further West, you will encounter the Anglicans in Luo, Friends’ churches in Luhyia, especially in Kakamega and Vihiga and Adventist in Nyanza, more so, South Nyanza. So churches that are predominant in the western part, arrived much later when other parts of Kenya had already been converted. The spread of religion of course followed the Railway line. The Roman Catholic, surprisingly arrived late, and that is why in most cases it was located closer to town centres and with their resources, they were able to go to the furthest places such as Lodwar.

So, most people picked the church that was the nearest. There were other oddities, such as the presence of Islam in Western Kenya, Mumias to be specific, and also Kendu Bay, from whence, Barack Obama’s ancestors may have picked their Islamism.

So, unless you are a recent convert, you mostly go to the church your parents took you first. Most of us, never unlearn what we were taught as young people, and we stick with the doctrines. And unlike, the Muslims, whose grasp of the Quran, I presume is somewhat better, as Christians (including yours truly), we are irredeemably lazy. Most of us, rarely get a chance to read the bible more critically and ask questions, even when we are university educated and we have been given the power to think.

We often leave to the preachers to interpret to us, and this makes us susceptible to be mislead.

***

Belief in God is very personal. As protestant Christian, I cannot claim that I have fully read the Bible, but I do believe that I have taken in enough teachings from the Adventist church and I have settled with it. Its teachings, meet my spiritual needs and I intend to become a better Adventist than I am now. Everyone too, needs to find their spiritual true North.

You need to pause and think, where you are spiritually, if it is the right move. To me, the essence of a church is convert souls and bring them closer to God. The end game is to be perfect as to enter the kingdom of heaven. And this is a daily pursuit. You become better with time, but given we don’t have much time on earth, this means the sooner you make that decision the better.

                                               Why God makes sense to me

At deeply personal level, I can say that I have seen God work miracles in my life. Not miracles in the sense of blind-, seeing and the lame-. walking. But miracles they are nonetheless. I have been fortunate, and it will be foolish to assume everyone has been as lucky as myself.

But this is a personal testimony. It will be easy to consider my situations as merely coincidental but then again too many coincidences don’t make so much sense.

The way God has worked in my life, is that whatever I have prayed for, be it academic, be it financial, be it for a spouse, whatever, He never gave me what I asked for exactly. He delayed a bit, and rewarded with something far much better than I would have ever imagined.

I will be vain to enlist all the favours God has done to me, some may not even make sense to some of you. I will use an analogy. It is like you are 18, and you are  a talented footballer. All you want is to play for Tottenham one day. Since you were born in Africa, you hope to start playing somewhere in Belgium, then, may be in Portugal and France, before you end up in Tottenham.  But you go to play in Belgium and a year later Manchester United buys you, by some serendipity or whatever you believe in.

That is how my life always panned. Praying for A, but always getting B with more rewards than A would have ever given. And that is why to me, it will be difficult to convince me otherwise, that there is no divine intervention, an unseen force that dictates my life.

Of course, like everyone else, often I am bitter with God for the bad things that happen in life. I have what I can call human justification to be mad at God. I see a lot of human suffering, politicians and the rich getting away with murder, people blindly worshipping fellow human beings. I see the wars. I see the poor women and children who suffer and are rejected as refugees. I see young men, consigned to wars. And world peace is as elusive as ever. I see the adverse effects of poverty and I cry within. All these make me mad. And furious and I wish it was quite different.

Yet, amidst all this hopelessness, I have infinite faith and belief that there is God, and He is in charge. Amidst suffering, I have come to learn when you believe despite your life situation, God can give you power to overcome your life’s situation.

I study the teachings of Jesus Christ, which at best may strike one as common-sensical, but He was a genius, because He is God. Everything Jesus did or said, made perfect sense and was a reminder of the shallowness of human beings, but he came to make us better. Anyone who can take Jesus Christ’s teaching, can lead a very fulfilling life.

***

It has become intellectually fashionable for young educated people to denounce God, or shun any form of organized religion. More and more young people are questioning the Bible, the Quran and any other religious book that believers draw their teachings from.

They cite the violence in the Bible and the Quran, the renewed radical Islamic terrorism, the crass materialism and the very empty pursuits that charismatic evangelical preachers pursue. Despite the radical teachings of Jesus Christ about love, towards everyone, no matter who they are, the church is  only learning to accept, albeit grudgingly,  minorities like gays, atheists and other undesirables.

There are inconsistencies about the way believers go about their lives. In Kenya for instance, religious leaders often fail to tell the thieving politicians that they are condemning many people to a life of suffering. The preachers have become materialistic; they are afraid of telling the congregation the truth of what God asks of us.

Yet, what atheists, whose number is on the rise across the world fail to notice is the role religion plays in the world. Somehow, they underestimate the anarchy that will erupt in the society espouse. Truth is, there are bad elements, in the churches and mosques today. But overall, the goodness of believers, regardless of their religious orientation cannot be overemphasized. Also, atheists tend to assume that human beings have not used the human constitutions and various cultures and other deranged excuses to kill and mime others.

Most atheists, I have noticed have a problem, not with God exactly, but with the people who worship God. They are always citing the bad things that Christians do (Catholic priests sleeping with young boys, the overzealous preachers who have brainwashed their poor masses even as they live in disgusting opulence, against the very teachings of Jesus, that it will be impossible for the rich to go to heaven, terrorism, you name it).

Christopher Hitchens, I noticed from his autobiography, Hitch 22, that he mother eloped with a spiritual leader of some sorts and ended committing a religiously inspired suicide.  Such a thing happening to your parent can have devastating effects on anyone and can make you question anyone in whose name the suicide was committed. I strongly feel that his unbelief, probably started from that instance, or his mother’s suicide strengthened his cynicism towards religion.

I can guess, many atheists too have their personal conflicts with God. They have other reasons, that involve their trust being tampered with, or getting enlightened, but if more Christians as Mahatma Gandhi said practiced Christ’s teachings, we would probably have less doubters.

***

You can have your doubts about God, but there are things that science can never adequately explain. To assume that everything that we have now was an evolutionary accident is to lie.

Take the human languages and our ability to communicate, for instance. The existence of thousands of world languages and cultures, each suitably adapted to their habitat, explains a lot than any scientific rationalization.  There is no rational and logical scientific explanation about the phenomenon life. Take the human eye for instance. It has been said to be too complex an organ to have occurred as an accident.

I mean, just look at how creatively your body is designed. The first time I learnt about enzymes and hormones, I was totally stunned. Anytime we have the chemical imbalance in our bodies, we become sick. And the chemical imbalance can be tampered with, when we lead lifestyles that are against the teachings of the Bible and the Quran. Long before science, the Bible and the Quran outlined the formula for life. Human beings deviated from it, and the further we move from God, the more complicated life became.

You look at the universe, the near mathematical perfection of the balancing of stars and planets, the view of the clouds from a plane 36,000 feet about, all can make you wonder in awe.

The gift of life, the gift of love, the beauty of laughter, humour, generosity, the rhythm of music, all remind us that there is the power of good. And no matter what atheists may say, there will always be bad elements in society, whether they ascribe to a certain religion or not is immaterial.

Most world religion teaches the best doctrines that can give people the highest form of fulfillment. Even recent research tends to point back to what we have been shunning. I recently saw a TED talk on what will make one truly happy in the world and it boiled down to cultivating good relationships with your family, and having friends on your side. Spend time with them.

Basically, it is about love. When you love people, genuinely, they tend to love you back and you tend to live a better life. Much of the loneliness and alienation that we now suffer is self-inflicted. We spend so much time chasing money, academic and material glory and we fail on the basic things that give meaning to life such as starting a family, and raising the family and traveling the world as to see how similar human beings are.

What I know for sure, those who follow God’s teachings, tend to have a more meaningful life than Yoga, meditation, drugs, alcohol, women, money, material wealth and other meaningless pursuits will ever give you.

When you trust in God, you submit to a higher order, so that even if you live in poverty, your life will be more meaningful than that of a politician who wakes up from a 50-bed room house and travels only in first class.

I do not say this from a defeatist point of view. But from a very philosophical point of view all is vanity. Life can be pointless. You wonder that after chasing all the money in the world, for men, all the women, driving the finest cars, ruling countries or even the world, what happens next. As in you die in the end. Sometimes made all the more miserable by disease and the everyday problems that we all deal with; cheating spouse, untrustworthy employees, alcoholism, nepotism, bad body shapes and such. It is like there are somethings that money will never insulate you from.

All told, whatever it is. I strongly believe there is God. He has done wonders for me. So can He for you. But you have to give Him a chance. And have faith. What makes the Bible so instructive, is that it does not guarantee that life will be easy when you believe in God. What the Bible constantly remind us is that we are all caught up in a cosmic battle, between God and Satan, but those who stick with God, for better or worse are always delivered in the end.