The power of stories and the will to live

“Art is, and always was, at the service of man. Our ancestors created their myths and told their stories for human purpose.”

                                                               -Chinua Achebe

Recently, a young man from my village who works as a security guard in one of Nairobi’s swankier hotels started one of his routine chats with me on Facebook. I asked him, in the “small-talkish” way if he was still manning the gate at the hotel.

“Yes. Kusukumana tu,” he chatted back.

“Hang in there,” I urged him.

“Thanks, man must live.” He wrote back.

For Kenyans of a certain generation, that statement:“Man Must Live” is a familiar one. It was a popular short story in the anthology Encounters from Africa, that was part of the Kenyan high school curriculum between 2003 to 2005.

“Do you remember Khalima Zungu, the main character in “Man Must Live”? he asked.

“Of course, I do. The watchman.” I hit back.

“Ha ha ha. That mantra inspires me.” He told me. That made me happy.

“True, be strong, one day things will be straight,” I told him in way of encouragement.

“Hope so, good evening,” and off he went to work.

That small conversation made me happy. A young man working as a watchman, sometimes down and out, remembering a story he probably read last in 2005, and living by the mantra of the story was something understated but very powerful.

In the story, Khalima Zungu is a burly railway police man who loves his job. He loved women too,  because they always complimented his heavyset body. He comes off as a buffoonish character. He had been on his job for so long, and age was catching up with him. One day, a woman arrived at the station late at night when the last train had left, and another one will not arrive until 3.15 a.m. He housed her in his small room and they chatted the night away. He learned that she is a widow and she had children.

The woman leaves in the morning and their little encounter seems to have sparked sparked some fire. A  week or so later, he receives an invitation from the woman to attend her daughter’s birthday. Zungu went. He loved everything about the family. In a space of few weeks, he married the woman and left his job.  He soon squanders his savings on liquor. And he turned on his wife’s savings and squandered her savings too. The woman ran out sympathy and patience and deserted the man. When he arrived home late at night one night, he found the house deserted with not even a single piece of furniture in site. He decided to torch down the house and himself, but was saved by neighbours and he woke up in a hospital. Now he had to carry on with life, after all, he always believed that Man Must Live.

Ezekiel Mphalele, arguably one of the best writers to ever emerge from the continent did a terrific job with the story, so humorous, yet so tragic. But despite everything, the story demonstrates the will of man to live.

As a man who aspires to be a storyteller, it is easy to think that our job on earth is useless. It sometimes feels like a thankless job. In other countries, storytellers, be they New York Times’s best-selling novelists, or the actors and producers in Hollywood they make a living a from their works. Not necessarily so in Kenya or in Africa to a large extent. We have great writers, bloggers, entertainers, but we always want to consume their stuff for free, yet their sweat touches our lives in a way nothing will. There some songs I listen and they cure me. Some writers whose work entertain me and enrich my life and makes living such a worthy experience.

Back to my kinsman who still lives by a mantra he got from a story he studied in school in 2005. Mphalele is long dead in South Africa, but his work still inspires a young man in Nairobi.

Stories are very powerful. Stories can change lives. After the chat with the young man, I remember Professor Henry Indangasi asking us in a Literature class, which was the best story in that anthology Encounters From Africa. Unanimously we all picked Ken Saro Wiwa’s “Africa Kills Her Sun”; a volatile letter from a prisoner to his girlfriend  on the eve of his execution explaining why he does not regret how is life turned out, and why he became a bandit, and how death will liberate him, and it us, the living who are poorer and prisoners. Every person who studied the anthology will pick the story. It is a no-brainer. The old Professor told said:NO.

We scratched our heads and picked the next best story, “The Man” by E.B Dongala. Written in quick moving action, the story tells of a man who breaks through an impregnable security designed by a white person with degrees in war science and terrorism to kill a dictator president. The Professor said NO.

We gave up on the tenacious Professor and asked him to pick his story. He picked Sam Kahiga’s “Last Breath” where a dying father donates his cornea to a blind would be daughter-in-law, when all along the son thought the father was against him marrying the blind girl.

“It is a good story, but certainly not better than Saro Wiwa’s story or Dongala’s masterpiece,” we argued.

“Stories have to inspire people. Stories have to make people happy. A story must end on an optimistic note, your choices end on a pessimistic note. Not inspiring, however well-written,” he told us.

We agreed to disagree. Personally, in my short stories or blogs, I have never believed in happy endings. Whether it is a night out, or the trial dates, or relationships, there is little in life that guarantees a good ending. It is the American optimism that has infected the world literature to an extent that we always buy into finishing stories with some hope, or having our heroine saved.

But when the young man from home told me that story inspires him, I had to rethink about Prof Indangasi’ advise on the need to finish our stories on an optimistic note.

I always loved Prof. Indangasi. He can be contrarian, and for that some people tend to differ with him aggressively. His last piece in the Nation, he called out on Ngugi wa Thiong’o, accusing his book Weep Not, Child promoting violence, oath taking to ensure that power never leaves the House of Mumbi.  He also said that the ancestral claim to land ironical. Since we have immigrated to our present land and there is no such a thing as ancestral ownership of land. Something compelling.

Ngugi wa Thiong’o one of the best writers to emerge out of Kenya, the man who documented our colonial struggle, using his Kikuyu tribesmen’s travails in the hands of white men has been accused of promoting Kikuyu nationalism. And his conspicuous silence towards criticizing the governments of Kibaki and Kenyatta II has been seen as a way abetting the sickening corruption overseen by the two successive presidents. But sometimes, I think we should cut him some slack. A man can only do so much and should leave it to others to carry on with the fight.

I have never had a problem of him using his Kikuyu language or his stories largely being centered on his Kikuyu experience. We are conjoined with the Kikuyu and their fate is our fate and our fate is their fate. And nothing has ever stopped me from using my Kisii community as a source for my stories. Nothing stopped Grace Ogot from using is Dholuo community to tell stories. Nothing stops anyone.

Stories must have a strong sense of community to get an identity. We associate hip-hop music with ghettoes in Carlifonia, New York Baltimore, Dandora, Kariobangi, because the anger, the creativity and all other ingredients necessary for hip-hop can only flourish in a ghetto.

Mafia stories were very Italian. Epic drug stories are from Mexico and Latin America. In short, stories must come from a place, but they all have therapeutic and cathartic and the experience of a man or a woman in China is the same as the experience of woman in Argentina. Indeed, all of us human beings have the will to live against all the odds.

You can be down and out. You may be living in the streets. You may be going without food. You may be in a shitty job. You may be in crappy relationship. But we are still determined to live.

Often when I’m playing with my two-year-old daughter, and I threaten her, or pretend to throw her down, she clings to me, cries like crazy, bores her ever long nails into my skin, tugs at me, slaps me, fights me until I let her go. I can see the will to live in her eyes, and the way her hearts beats.

Some do give up. Some resign to fate. Some commit suicide. Some take to drugs. But for many people, young or old, we all want to live for as long as we can.

Beyond food, jobs, and other things that keep us going, stories take such a central place in our lives. That is why books will always be written, movies acted. And a poor man, just as much as a rich man will always want a story. A good story.

To paraphrase Chinua Achebe in one of his essays in the 1960s, or 1970s, he said that as we evolved, there must have been a need for stories hence our insatiable desire.

If you are story teller, do it. Keep doing it. You never know whose life you will touch. Whose life you will plant a smile on. Whose life you will inspire.

 

 

Do you have a PLAN B?

My estate is what you would call a gated community. The estate consists of a dozen apartments and mansionettes, a small shopping center, roughly ten square meters, just a two-story building (in the original plan it was supposed to be a nursery for the estate, but that is a story for another day). The story building, still unfinished has like four bars, one big one, where we catch the weekend football matches, and those small bars (the size of a stall) that serve a specific clientele. There are like 3 barbershops. Two or more salons (they keep opening new ones and they close within a month). Then there are two adjacent mini-supermarkets (really, your corner shops). There is an open urinal that stinks from the place to hell, in the building and that is what you will remember should you ever visit me and I take you to my local.

Outside the story building, there are some shanty-like structures that house three butcheries (one was opened only last week, and frankly, those are three butcheries too many considering not far away, there is another butchery). They all have nyama choma firewire skewers, there is mama mboga and a few other miscellaneous businesses. Due to poor drainage and hygiene, the place gives our estate some slum appeal.

Throughout the estate, there are other shops, sporadically spread so that there is always a kiosk, or a vegetable vendor, nearby, not far away from your apartment.

Most of the vendors, have erected makeshift structures on the undeveloped pieces of land; the estate is about 95 per cent developed. So, some of the remaining spots are used by mostly women to sell vegetables, and some helpfully do boil githeri and beans to help the ‘middle-class’ save on gas.

In one of the undeveloped plots near our informal shopping center is a young, light-skinned, slender woman, probably a Luhyia. She probably is a mother of one or two kids. That kind of devotion is common with single mothers, or mothers from low-income households. Just saying.  Her kiosk is minimalist. It stocks only the essentials, and quite overpriced, more to do with the class of the people in the neighbourhood. There is a price you pay for laziness. She stocks those small, wrinkly tomatoes, even smaller, malnourished onions, has some jiko that she prepares githeri and beans on alternating days of the week. She also stocks those stones so beloved by women. Why do women eat them so much?

About two months ago, the owner of the plot kicked her out. OK, kicked sounds like s/he was being inhumane. But really, time had come, after four years (or more, been living there for four years now), for the owner to build his mansionette. I was just passing by and I noticed the two kiosks had been uprooted. I wondered what happened to her.

She settled in a different part of the estate. I passed by and I could see the hastily built shanty, and the poor stock stuff on small basins on the ground. She was using a candle, and the whole thing stood isolated, amidst the sea of apartments and mansionettes; she was there alone. Her clientele probably didn’t know that she had moved there.

I looked at her. She looked worried. I knew she would not last in new spot. She knew that too. And the following day, the owner of the plot she had moved to, decided to fence the place and just like that our poor (in the hapless sense of the word) had no place to go.

I wondered what options she had. Where would she go to start all over again. The remaining undeveloped pieces are either occupied, or the owners are developing them or on the verge of starting to develop them. That made me sad.

Some time back one such woman had to move from a spot she occupied. Her spot was on my way home and one day while passing through, I saw her entire enterprise in a disarray: Her polythene umbrellas, sufurias, pots, jikos, utensils, sacks and all thrown around and she stood there, confused but stoic. There was a resilience about her. She moved to the next empty space, and erected a small wooden stand and continued to supply us with vegetables; and food to the construction workers working on the building where she had vacated from. A benevolent Kenyan probably gave her the space to keep using until he or she can build his house.  But after that initial displacement, things were never the same again. She lived with the burden of uncertainty.

Earlier in the year, I was passing by the nearby shop when I saw her photo on top of the book and I hoped it was merely nothing. But it was. She had died. She gave birth and started bleeding afterwards, profusely, and by the time the ambulance could get her to a medical facility she had died.  That made me sad. I never met a Kenyan with so much hope and will to live.

There was another woman with a shop who this week had to move from her prime spot to another hidden spot when the owner came knocking. But at least she has an option.

What of those without options. What about those without choices. Like our lady earlier. What becomes of her. I know she is resourceful and whatever got her the spot in the first place will get her another one.

***

I have always been sympathetic of those people without choices. Personally, anytime I’m stuck without a choice, I feel powerless. There is a powerlessness that comes when you don’t have a choice. Ever stayed with a mean aunt, or relation and you have to put with their issues, because you have nowhere else to go?

Ever left the club early before matatus that ply your route close business because you can’t afford a taxi. Ever stuck in an abusive relationship because you have no choice (maybe you are a woman, he has given you four children, and you have no means of raising them and you have to stick with him, until further notice). Ever ate Sukuma wiki for so long until the site of the terrible vegetable just gives you hiccups. Think of those who live in Rongai and use public means and they must use those terrible matatus driven at maddening speeds. I can’t even mention our politics.

Speaking of politics, as we head to silly season, some people are justifiably apprehensive of the outcome of the elections.

Wars are not funny, are totally avoidable, but inevitable. The rhetoric that preceded the 2007 and 2013, has become a recurrent theme. The opposition does not trust IEBC, and with reason. Those in government are now tired of the recurring mistrust by Mr Odinga. Again, we are stuck. The opposition believes they will win, and there are pointers to the same. But the government too can put up a show, and its supporters are justified to believe that they will win. That is a recipe for disaster.

But what if things go wrong again? In 2007, I saw my clansmen and Kikuyus especially who had invested their whole lives in the Rift Valley being rendered homeless. To see your house going up in fire… To see your property destroyed can be demoralizing.

Many who came back to their ancestral home seemed lost, displaced;physically and mentally and what a pity that was. Few had the mental wherewithal to be resilient when they saw their loved ones die.

Thing with war is that you have politicians who can’t see beyond their greed, and young men with nothing to lose, nothing to live for, and ready to die for anything. I see these young men in betting shops. I see these young men riding boda bodas. I see them walking to work. I see them in political rallies. I see them in drinking dens. And they terrify me.

All they need is to be told go ahead. On other hand you have a hardworking Kenya who will lose his life, or property because he or she supports the opponent (even when you have no basis, skin colour or the name can determine such.)

On elections day, what choices do we have? Do you live in a place where you have to think about your safety should things go wrong?

Choices.

 

A man with a Range Rover gets snubbed twice in one evening

MEMO FROM THE SOCIAL AFFAIRS DESK

***

A very weird thing happened to me this weekend.

On Saturday, at around 3.30 p.m. I was standing outside the Nation Media Group towers on Kimathi Street.  I was to meet two people around the time. One of them had switched off his phone. And the other was in Thika and would only “make it to town around 6…”  which means 8.30 p.m. Kenyan time.

I contemplated going into the bar. But I’m now in that “cheers baba” stage of life where an innocent walk into the bar for one beer somehow ends getting you home at 4.a.m. to a justifiably pissed off wife. Wives inspire the fear of God in men who arrive home drunk after 1 a.m. Wives are something else. Thrice, last week, an innocent drink bought at around 7.p.m. has seen me tip-toe into the house at 3 a.m. and let’s just say, it is not the right thing. Wives hate that sh*t like crazy. So I resisted the temptation. If I tried step in the bar, I was guaranteed to get home earliest 3 a.m. My peoples will not talk to me. Next I will start getting rude, in defense, the boy inside me urging me that a woman can’t boss me. And that is how families are destroyed.

I didn’t know what to do with my life. I had just bought a Bob Dylan biography from the guy who sells books on the left side of the Twin Towers, and I was checking the jacket blurb when I had a familiar voice shout NYANCHWANIIII!!!!.

Out of a Range Rover, steps an old friend, in white pants, crispy white vest and golden chains hanging from his neck like a chained dog. He also wore a cap like 1990s washed up rapper from Brooklyn. He was a tad over-excited and melodramatic to see me, so I played along. We did the male shoulder to shoulder thing. Then we hugged, him slapping me on the back and it hurt like crazy.

“Kwani ulirudi?” he asked.

It is exactly year since I have been back, but despite being noisy on Facebook and a chief idler in the CBD, some people still ask me when did I come back, why I came back, or if I’m back for good.

Without asking me what my plans are, he told me we get into the car and “chapa raundi kiasi”. Not sure why I boarded, but I have never been driven in a Range Rover (without a doubt, the ugliest SUV ever conceived by man), so I became opportunistic.

About my friend. I used to see him in campus, but I’m not sure if he was at all student. He has always been dubious, but I know for sure he went to Kisumu Boys because he used to hang with the notorious Kisumu Boys gang.  I don’t know what he does, but the few times we have seen him since campus, he is always driving some pricey machine.

So, we chat a bit. I tell him I was waiting for a friend who will not get to town, until 6 p.m.  So we are three of us (a young man, probably his relation who he had asked to sit in the back seat so that I can ride shotgun). He tells me he needs to pick some chicks in Hurlingham. So, we speed up Kenyatta Avenue, Valley Road, Argwings Kodhek and we pick the girls from that Petrol Station opposite Yaya. They climb onto the back seat.

They are light skinned, one has some acne issues that she has tried her best to cover up in cakes and cakes of makeup and she speaks in a slight GEMA accent. The second one is shorter, may be 24, but she looks the type who has been around Nairobi long enough. You feel like you have seen her in all the nightclubs since you were 19. She was chewing gum loudly, and that annoyed me. As we make a turn towards Kileleshwa, still catching up with my friend, he tells me, they are going for some photoshoot in “Westie”, and it will last 20 minutes before we go have some drink. At the back, the girls launch into mother tongue you would think they are in a matatu plying Mukurweini-Nyeri.

We get to Westlands, they go to the agency and we step out for my friend to smoke as we wait. 20 minutes go, the girls are not yet done. Another 20 minutes go, the girls are not yet done. One hour, my friend decides to call them but they don’t pick even when he goes at them so persistently. Pissed off, he angrily thrown the cigarette butt and utters something in Dholuo which doesn’t sound good and he tells me “let’s go”.

Moments later, we arrive in the CBD, and he says we should eat at Kosewe and in we go. It around 5 p.m. and my boy is restless. He talks to his young relation in Dholuo and the young man picks his phone and I can hear a young female voice talking from the other end. Food arrives. We eat, the table is cleared. Drinks arrive and I start getting apprehensive. This is not going to end well.

Around 7 p.m. the friend in Thika calls to say he is almost done, I should wait for him. That is how lowly my friend thinks of me. Around this time, two girls arrive, much better looking than the previous duo, much better dressed seemingly for the night out. Hugs are exchanged. They sit. They are ordered to eat and they say what they want, and the young man goes to pay for the food. One ordered chicken. And another matumbo. That Kienyeji chicken of Kosewe is so hard, I wished her lucky in my heart as she will try to rip the meat from the bone. I didn’t know that women eat matumbo, but this is Nairobi you learn something new every day.

Anyway, I was merely an ornament for my friend. He introduced me as a writer who writes for The Star. The girls are clueless. They have never seen my name nor heard it anywhere. Sensing the disappointment, he tells them, apropos nothing, “he is the mukimo guy”.

The chicken one holding the drumstick midway in the air, and the matumbo one her spoon almost in the mouth, pause, and as if on a cue: “weee shida yako na mukimo ni nini?”

“I read that thing, it was so full of hate, aki!” the chicken one says.

Silence.

“Wewe uko na issues na wakikuyu!”.

Silence.

My friend comes to my defense, praising me but I’m totally lost. So, I play cool. Fly on the wall. Upon finishing they debate on what club to go to. They settle for some joint in Hurlingham, and for no reason whatsoever, I join them. Same sitting arrangement.

We arrive at the club. The girls know the bouncer on first name basis I note. We notice once we arrive that the the place is not yet packed. Mid-month stuff.

We sit and drinks are served. Not sure how the hours go, but when I check my phone, it is 10. p.m. and my friend in Thika had tried calling me around 9.30 p.m. when I didn’t pick, he sent a text that said, there was some slight jam at Parklands. My friend really ako na madharau.

If you go home at 10 p.m., your wife can forgive you. But more drinks arrive. And while the body is willing to leave, the spirit is weak. My friends and his relation disappear for like an hour leaving me with the lasses. Not sure what to talk with them, I still maintain my silence which unsettles them. But they are comfortable in their own company.

Honestly, I don’t how to talk to women. I tend to veer off and start talking about the problems China has with Taiwan, the nuclear crisis and the Venezuelan debt problem. And women hate that sh*t. Only one in a million will be interested in that. For men, it is easy. You just lean over  and tell him, “man I didn’t know that  Niger has a huge uranium deposit?”

“Come on, and the way the French have been exploiting them…” before he proceeds to give you a lecture on Francophone Africa politics. The drunker you get, the more intelligent he will sound.

After like an hour, my friend arrives back. No apologies. He cozies himself to one of the ladies, but I notice they are not interested in him. He calls for shots that cost arms, legs, kidneys and everything. He tries to dance with one of them, who I notice is the one he is eyeing the most, but she is not interested in him at all.

Meanwhile the bill is shooting up. It is approaching what a two-bedroom apartment in a place like Umoja will cost. His young relation seems to be so awestruck in his presence and he is more obedient to his orders than a dog.

Past midnight, I’m examining my life’s choices. I have wasted an entire evening in a night that has not added value to me. Wife has not even asked where I am, and that makes you eerily uncomfortable. Better a wife who nags you because it shows she cares.

So, my friend after trying to entice her, the girl does everything he wants but she is not in the mood AT ALL.  At some point, he even tried to kiss her and she shoves his sorry face away and I have never felt sorrier for the boy child. I was mad.

Maybe, they date and the girl is not really into him or she was punishing him for some misdemeanor. Her friend was on phone throughout the charade and the young relation was watching some girls dirty dancing across, itching to go there.

At some point, the girls leave even without telling us bye. And my friend suggests we change clubs. He suggests some club that is thronged by highly questionable women and men. At that moment, while still sober I tell him I have to be home, because the following day I have to go to church, there is a fundraiser. I lie. He doesn’t ask much.

Then I looked into his eyes. There was an emptiness about them. A hollowness that I could not describe. Despite being reasonably loaded (the dubious sources of cash, notwithstanding), despite driving a Range that as far as I could tell was his, he had been turned down by two sets of women.

Whereas he is full of bullshit, he is a kind soul. I wondered what can fulfil him. I know why he would decide to go to a den of strippers and commercial sex workers, no hassles down there, just pay, get what you want and carry on. But on my Uber home, I wondered what can fulfil such a man?