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