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Monday, September 24, 2012

a thousand lives and one

"A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies the man who never reads lives only one”

“Books should broaden us, take us to places we have never been and show us things we have never seen, expand our horizons and our way of looking at the world.”

George R.R. Martin.

Some books have an effect on me. Usually they are long books, long, long books that capture my life for weeks. The description in the books has to be vivid, the characterisation spot on and most of all they have to make me feel something. They have to take me somewhere by being nothing more than words arranged in a certain order. They make me live.

I recently read a book called Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman. It’s a book based in the second world war. It concerns itself with the battle for Stalingrad and the lives and fates of people intertwined with this war. This book covers everything taking you into the mind and heart of a Jew on his way to the “showers” as they were called. And this scene had my heart pounding. I read recently that there is a terrible suspense in knowing something will happen and then waiting for it to happen. As these Jews are herded into the cattle trucks we already know the end of their journey. But we get to know them. We learn titbits about their lives a young boy feels for the first time the “sweet sadness of being in love”, relationships are formed and all the time the cold march of fate goes on. With every word we get closer to their demise. There is a scene where some of them are ordered to the showers  and they go. They have no idea what is in store for them even though we do. They get out of clothes they had worn for weeks relieved that they have a chance to do this. Happy about being out of the rot and smell and sweat of a journey where they are packed like cattle. The words “zyklon b” slip into the book and we can see with terrible clarity what is about to happen and then they die. The gas scene isn’t spared, a woman looks for a boy she befriended, and tries to comfort him in what she knows would be their final moments. A mother and daughter cling together in terrible fury, holding on to something that feels real. A hold and grasp so desperate that the German soldiers know not to try to pry them apart. And the book takes us into the inner lives of so many more. Stalin and Hitler make an appearance. Doubts gnaw at them as they surely must. They wonder not if they are on the right goal because fanatics rarely do but they feel fear, they wonder if they can achieve their goal. They are scared not just of failing but of being thought fallible.

You see this is one of the reasons I read. For a while I was Hitler, I was Stalin, I felt what it was to be in a gas chamber and to live in a city under siege. A place where bullets are as common as hallos. And I could understand that after a few months of that a return to normalcy feels strange. Books can do that to you. Writing, good writing can do that to you. It can move you in unexpected ways and most of all there has not been any other invention that lets you know how it feels to be another human being. Nothing can take us inside the skin of another person so completely. Let us feel as he felt and love as she loved.

Right now  I am reading a book called Fevre Dream that is based in the Mississippi river and as I read it I remember the reason I must learn to swim. One day I want to work on a cruise ship. And no I don’t want to work on there for just a day I want to live and work there for a year. I can’t imagine anything grander, having no land under you waking up every day in the same place but not really. Inhabiting a country or a lack of one that is truly global in nature. No question of visas or immigration on the high seas. Just human beings living together. Knit into one monolith by the thing that keeps us afloat. Every few days a new destination. The smell of salt constantly in your nose, the crash of waves in your ears, the rocking of the boat your gravity and the sea nights black and blue and beautiful, a reflection of the full moon caught in the water(I can only see it as full) a circle of white light floating and rippling turned into tiny waves of moonshine as imperfect a mirror as the thoughts we have of ourselves. I can’t imagine anything grander than the sea nights. The silence would stretch away into forever and if you went out and looked at it you would hear that peculiar voice with which water talks to human beings. That calming, soothing, voice that tells you everything will be ok. Don’t you worry yourself, don’t fret. I know better. The sea. It is not as hard and unyielding as the land. It will allow itself to bend to the whims of humans to be cut through but it is so many times more infinite. Its depths contain a world we have not yet began to explore. A cold world of wonderful creatures and a warning of danger. Nothing that powerful is to be trifled with.

I know nothing about the sea. About ships. About cruising. I know about the voice of water because I do hear it and hear it well but everything I else I know, the things I really know almost like I was there myself come from the books I read. We were given this one life and soon it passes away into obscurity and nothingness. All through this life we inhabit this one skin. A skin that grows and we inside it grow too. We change and become different persons and then we change back into the person we had been all along. But we have words, we have books and we have writing. We have ways, magical ways of living a thousand and one lives. We can be knights and ladies, thieves and vagabonds, kings and lords, presidents, popes, heads of families. We can live on this world and in others. We can visit different times we can have conversations with people long since dead or never real. We can have adventures and we  meet beautiful women, we can get drunk and sober up. We can laugh and play and love and mourn and into this one life fold multitudes of others. Because we can read.

I read because things begin to feel real in the inside of words. My favourite part of any piece of reading is one that I can only see while looking back, sometimes it is in the first word I read, or so far inside the book that I am glad I read that far, there is that point when like a boulder falling down a sheer cliff I fall into the universe created by the words I am reading. When I am lost in them, embraced by them and can't find my way out. When i am suffocated by what I read but it made me sprout gills and the thing I feel will kill me is breathing normal air. The point when the characters become people you know and care about and the plot a part of your life that needs a resolution. That point when reading resembles living so much you are not sure which is which, that point is why I read.

So to all the books I ever loved. To every single one of you thank you for giving me another life to lead.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

the little things

This is one of those things that should come as no surprise to anyone who knows me. I can’t read maps; I can't arrange them right; I don’t even know where Vihiga and Voi are. I was not much made for geography, not my strength. Why  care about places and things when they have no stories attached to them? I like stories and I like them to have some conflict or human emotion, a mountain erupting by itself somewhere resulting in some parts of the country having rich volcanic soil is a crap story. There are no stakes, nothing happens, it only becomes important because of the human consequences of it and not the actual happening. It may be fun to watch but it’s not for me. I have used maps in the past and it reminds me of doing home science in primary school and taking 30 minutes just to thread the needle. Here I take just as long making the map look like the world, how the hell do people do it? How do you make the streets on paper align with the ones in your hand?  It’s better for me to just walk around until I bump into someone I know and this has been proven to work. When I was younger and got lost in town I would tell myself that if I walked long enough it was statistically impossible not to find the Hilton, there’s a place like that in every city. And then there are the fictional maps. Have you ever read a book with a map in it? You know the way some books have the cast of characters all on the first page so you can remember the relationships and names as you refer back over and over. Some guys put a map in there. I have no time for fictional maps. Even if it’s a non-fiction book I have no time for maps. I pass over that page faster than the first blank page that all books have. I don’t care where Mordor is or the relative distance from the Vale to King’s Landing or even if the north is really to the north. The place names have nothing to do with their locations, in my mind they are just connotations and relationship and people and conflict and actual stories.

Which is why I am extremely proud of myself today. For today I write with the aid of a map. I ripped the image right out of Google and I recognised almost everything there. Which is expected since it’s the most used route of my life, just about every day in Kenya I go this way or come back. But to the story, below is a map of western? Nairobi for reference.

So am going to town. I have just a left a good friend’s house and am using a matatu 23 to get me into the city. We have just come down Wayiaki Way which is in the northwest corner of the map and we are approaching the museum hill overpass-roundabout thingy. My stop is university way (south of the map) and I hope foolishly that the matatu will go straight down Uhuru Highway. This is the fastest way for me to get to where am going but this being rush hour more often than not there is a crippling traffic jam on this road, a mass of cars so thick and stationery it reminds me of that time I spotted an elephant penis.
yer... i know.

Caption (I know right…)

Because of this traffic the matatus usually take a detour and follow the museum hill road and come out near Ngara. From my remembrances of using this road there are no actual stops until you get to Odeon cinema. Odeon is so far out of my way it doesn’t even show up in the map. It is the wasteland of we’ll-never-be-there-so-why-bother-drawing-it. From Odeon it is a long, hot walk back to university way. Speaking of hot, what the hell is that thing in the sky? Who told the sun we missed it that much. It’s like she doesn’t know how to be perfect either she leaves you entirely for another place or she clings to you obsessively like she does now, it’s suffocating and all I want, all am really asking for is some space. It’s ok to be there but do you have to be so much? Remember the power puff girls episode where the mayor says, “ girls, girls, There’s a giant ball of fire in the sky.”? That’s where we are.

So the matatu takes the detour and goes down Ngara road. There is an illicit stop I can make here that would cut my journey in half, but am sitting at the back of the matatu and touts are not as daring as they used to be, police don’t have as many blind eyes to turn and i am not nearly as limbre as a few years back so it makes no sense to do this unless am close to the door. I look off to the side and it’s that perfect orange sun, I figured am looking to the east because I can see the reflection of the sun in some windows and it’s beautiful.

Every city no matter how poorly planned in the end has some beauty in it. All you have to do is step back which is true of everything. No matter how little beauty there is in the constituent parts of one thing when taken together they seem to add up to something pretty or at least pretty from far. The buildings all thrust phallically into the air. The air itself could be seen too. It was dust balls and smaller dust particles surrounding them. It was these things being speared by the dying of the light of the sun and dispersing the golden yellows of a Nairobi sunset into everything sort of like a rainbow that doesn’t refract. Dust and gold and brown and sun is how the air looked. Filtered through these golden glasses you could see the buildings in the back. I could make out Lillian Towers (I think it’s called) and then there was the building of glasses. Am not sure what building this was but it had windows all over its side. There was nothing uniform about these windows as it always is in an office building, some were closed, and some were open. There was no pattern to this at all except the varying tastes of humanity in regard to their stuffiness. Nevertheless it made a piano of light as the setting sun struck them differently and was reflected off them. Now it wasn’t just the dust balls dispersing light, it was also being played back to them and to me. Some things can be almost heartbreakingly beautiful. The heart-breaking part is that there was no one else there who felt the same way, no one I knew no one I could see was going through this experience with me. In this perfect moment i was alone And beauty shouldn’t be that lonely. “The sweet sadness of being in love” Vasily Grossman once wrote.

And then we broke through this section ad we passed illicit stop number one. There were still a number of likely illicits that I could get off at. There was one at Ramesh Gautama road east of the map; there was another at Government Road near the fire station. But now I was gripped by a secret hope. I hoped with all my heart that vision 2030 which had been laid on Nairobi’s infrastructure would be real enough to have an effect on me. I was hoping we would swing round under globe flyover (it’s in the middle of the river’s trajectory) and come back up near Adamali House eventually going to Moi Avenue where I could get off from.

This secret hope, this private prayer I whispered only to myself and not even consciously. Then you know what happened? We swung around globe flyover (it’s in the middle of the river’s trajectory) and came back up near Adamali house eventually going to Moi Avenue. The effect of this was that I was closer to my destination than I would have been if I had gotten off at the University Way stop.

It’s the little miracles that count.

Monday, September 17, 2012

oriti nyaka oyawre-on my time in nyanza

Last week I had the opportunity to revisit Nyanza. I left Nairobi at 10 at night, as soon as the bus got started I fell asleep all the way to the first stop. The non-dreams assisted by alcohol that make a moving journey almost non-existent travelled with me. I woke up. I peed. I got back on the bus. I slept and all of a sudden we were in Kisumu. It was almost 8 in the morning and the city seemed to just be stirring. That’s an amazing difference from Nairobi. You see on the way back I got to Nairobi at about 6 and by then people were already up and about. The shimmering light of night turning into day was interrupted by people on their way to work and from other activities. Nairobi city centre at that time is teeming with life. It’s so cold it feels like a winter night and glimmering into view is all this activity but not Kisumu, not at that time. There was barely a shop open, a few people scattered here and there that you could ask for directions and the look of a Nairobi person was written all over me. People have this gift of knowing when someone is a visitor in their town. There is probably a look of wonder or a gait that says this is not  from here. Everyone walks different in different cities. There is some of the wariness associated with Nairobi but not a lot of the hurry. It’s more leisurely, there’s more time and you hear  it in how people talk, see it in  how they walk.

Oyawre. This is how you greet in Luo during the day, or in the morning. Translated directly it means “it has opened up.” The sky that was imprisoning the sun has opened up and let out a new day and when you meet someone you ask them oyware? (has it opened up?) They say oyawre ainya. (It has truly opened up or it has opened up a lot.) You are not delusional in assuming a new day has greeted us is the assurance you receive. Not a greeting  passed between people but an affirmation of one passed between the eternal day and the human being. All you do is affirm the lack of delusion and go on with life.

I didn’t stay in Kisumu for a long time; I soon passed it and went on to a place called Kaudi. It’s not very well known except that it’s close to Bondo and even closer to Kogelo. Sandwiched in between these two places where Luo blood seems to have congregated to give the leaders almost all Luos hold dear. The road to Obama’s grandmother’s house is still being constructed and it is a thing of efficiency. There are drains being put up along every kilometre of finished road, huge drains that mean no matter how much it rains this place won’t be impassable. I was staying at ARO development centre, the Kenyan headquarters of the organisation I was working with in Norway. It’s not really a place I could afford to stay at on my own dime. The rooms are nicely made up with light streaming in from windows and bars to keep out the mosquitoes. It seems forever expanding with a dining room, conference facilities and a round hut that can be used as a meeting place at all times of the day. I gorged myself on the food, omelletes for breakfast prepared with onions, tomatoes, garlic and just the right ammount of oil. A variety of  foods for the rest of the meals, chapatis and beef stew, chicken curry and ugali, toasted sandwiches and roasted chicken, spaghettis and sauces.

 And it has that thing that you never see in the city. Horizons.Here things stretch away from you. Horizons of light that make you sure the earth is flat. In the evening when the sun is disappearing into that place it goes and its light is waning  the horizons can be seen to disappear too. As they go further and further away from your eye it becomes darker and darker like the lion king scene until at the very edge all you can see is shadow and myth. Then it drops away. The light disappearing with the land and taking it with it into that prison until it opens up again There are also horizons of sound. Taken away from the incessant sounds of the city you start to realise just how much life nature has, crickets at night, mosquitoes buzzing, birds at dawn. The sound becomes almost like the light when you are really still  you can hear it in ever widening circles. Here is the immediate sound of someone walking, further you can hear another circle as children play and then it gets darker and darker and if you really listen all these sound merge into silence. The silence stretches like a finger especially at night when all the humans have put themselves to bed and all left for you to listen to is the sound of the earth not moving because in a place where the earth is flat how can you really believe that it moves around the sun?

We were carrying out an interview about solar lamps with one of the technicians in charge of it and he begins to tell us this story his grandfather told him about how sugar became so popular. You see the colonialists had all these sugar plantations and no one to sell it to. The locals had never had sugar and couldn’t be convinced of its necessity but they liked their tea. They had it piping hot and sugarless. The farmers were not having it and hatched this scheme to make sugar popular. They went to the market place and announced free tea. People lined up to have it. This tea was laced with sugar and the people who had it agreed it was better. Those resistant to change were forced to take some and soon they liked it too. The next time like classic drug dealers they were told they had to fork over a little something for the sugar and by now they were hooked.

We were driving around and a guy had stopped his motorbike on our path. Our driver said, “o chung e wang ndara” this means he has stopped on the eye of the road. He has blocked not only the road but the vision for which the road was made, he has made it blind with his insistence and what is a blind road? Just one that doesn’t know where it’s going and thus can’t let you, the user go there. It was raining really hard and he told us the Luo equivalent of its raining cats and dogs, he didn’t say it in Luo so I can’t transcribe but basically it goes something like it’s raining so hard the monkeys are committing suicide because they would rather use the trees as shelter.

I went back to Kisumu  for the weekend and in many ways it reminds me of the Nairobi of my youth. The city council hasn’t cottoned on to how much money in bribes and legal revenue they can make by enforcing litter laws. People dump their litter ad cigarette butts everywhere. I got on a matatu and I was hanging. Hanging like its 2002. And this seemed normal. For those of you who don’t know what hanging is, this is simply what happens when a matatu is packed so full that there is no space for anyone else inside. The three-seaters have been made into four and five seaters so the conductor throws the door open and some people hang onto the inner crevices by the tip of their fingers. The wind gets them, the danger gets them, the effort of making sure they don’t slide gets them. You pay less because you aren't actually sitting down, you pay more for the view you get.

We spent Saturday night in Kisumu partying our hearts out. Kenyans do like to party, and in Kisumu you get from place to place in tuk tuks even at night. These things do not have the prohibitively high prices that taxies in Nairobi have. The clubs were not very different . the first one we went to played music from my teenage past though. From that time in my life when I could actually remember the lyrics to songs and sing along to hit after hit. Some of them bringing back a memory of a place or a time. Mostly an emotion. The song you heard when you were done with high school, finished with rules and regulations that expressed themselves in an explicit, overt manner brooking no bending and punishing all breaking. That song that represents some of the transition into the time when your life was no longer ruled by bells. When you felt you were free before the even louder bells of societal expectations and monetary concerns began to sound in your mind and control your heart, leading you every which way. But when you first heard this song you still had an illusion of control. And it led you from a life where rigidity was the only way to fit into the system into one where the bells are so amorphous and ambiguous that you can lie to yourself that you didn’t hear them and escape the rigors of time by denying it. Come 8 in the morning and we spilled out of the club, grasping our beer in plastic cups and bottles. It seemed ok to do this no one had told me why but it seemed that in this city the arm of the law was shorter.

Kiswahili is not terribly popular among Luos. Am not sure why, maybe it doesn’t allow the same jumping through hoops that our language allows. Maybe the hoops are much harder to find and impressing with eloquence or expressing ourselves in the way that Luo allows  is much harder in Kiswahili than in English. That’s my guess after my four days there. When you say goodbye in Luo you say oriti. This translated exactly means may he wait on/for you. Until we see each other again I leave you this blessing and this hope that he waits on you. In response you give the same blessing, may he wait on/for you too. There is no  promise inherent that we will see each other again even though it is implied. But then we didn’t really say hallo either. May he wait on you until the day greets you again. This is very hard to capture in Swahili.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

the Bak stops here

In a few months president Kibaki comes to the end of his 2nd 5 year 3 month term, somehow even in that finding a way to circumvent the constitution. As this happens people will start looking back over his reign and try to find a legacy within it. A thing that will forever define what he stood for, the event that will be written down in history books for generations to come because Kenyan children need to know about their third president.

When he was sworn in for this term our country was tittering on the brink of chaos, no one knew which way it would fall and dark days surrounded us all. There was suspicion and fear amid hatred and enmity. There were smss circulating telling people not to drink the tap water because someone had put poison in it. Remember that? I do only barely though because a Kenyan characteristic imprinted in me is the ability to forgive and forget. To be a good little Christian even when it leads to results in repeated infractions. But for a few weeks I lived in a country where people were asked not to drink the tap water because it may be poisoned. I lived in a country where machetes and bullets were the way to settle arguments. I lived in a country where my 5 year old niece had to make a joke that she was scared her neighbours would cut off her braids, that the machetes would slice into her mother’s belly and spill forth the baby that had been growing there, a country where her brother in a moment of clarity had to drop his trousers in order to show he was circumcised just so his neighbours of 2 decades would let him go. For weeks we lived in a country where people didn’t go shopping for groceries they bought provisions, where the flow of information was stifled and people heard more about what was happening in the country from relatives outside it who could still watch CNN. Are there any of us who did not know a refugee? An internally displaced person? Someone who had to move out of their home because they were scared of what may happen if they did not?

A lot of my friends sometimes say that it wasn’t so bad that the media exaggerated what happened, that in some places people sat at home and nothing was happening there. But I think they forget the atmosphere of the time. Even if you weren’t physically touched by violence there was violence in the air. Do I believe emotions have power? Do I think thoughts can stain the air and that malevolent spirits spread their power not through some mystery of the ether but through the minds and intentions of human beings? Yes I do and you would too if you ever walked into a room where a particularly truthful argument had happened when people had spilled their emotions into the air and you walked in and felt tense. For weeks an honest argument occurred. The instruments of convincing were machetes and bullets. Blood was spilled. Hate was shown, security was shorn. Life came to a standstill and screams rent the air. Families split apart. Children lost. Sons, daughters, wives, uncles, nieces, nephews, aunts, grandmothers, grandfathers, friends, they all died. They all died. That spilt blood, the emotions that led to the swinging of that machete, those were all part of what polluted the air of our country and if you lived somewhere untouched by violence and never saw it with your eyes never heard of it with your ears you still felt it in your soul. You felt the uncertainty, the fear that comes of a child playing with a tinderbox near a clutch of dynamite.

Against this background president Kibaki was sworn in. He whisked himself off to a private ceremony all in attendance being him, the chief justice and some unlucky cameraman. The only person who had no choice in what they were doing being the cameraman. I can’t quite remember the sequence of events now. Everything seems to blur together. We had the most participatory election we had ever had. The people believed that their will would be reflected in the count. Rigging was unimaginable in the hearts and minds of anyone even those who rigged didn’t think they would. Otherwise why would they allow the counting to be televised? Why would they be so clumsy as to have constituencies returning 120% of the vote. Why would all these things happen if they had wanted to rig? I know we went to bed one night and the spirits of those who supported the government woke up while we slept and slipped them a few hundred thousand votes. I remember the uproar. That much freedom of press is not something you give if you expect to rig. Was the violence spontaneous? Am not sure anymore. Was the morning when we saw how blatantly cheated we all were the dawn that brought out the worst in all of us? Am not sure. What I do remember was that by the time the president was being sworn in the soul of our country was black. Grass fields, bald president, national TV station. This was it. What had happened to the government that had allowed any member of the media with a camera in to film the counting of votes? Why was this historic event being witnessed by only the cameras of KBC? How did the government that allowed the results of a referendum election that they lost stand come to this. Where was our happy jovial president? The uncle with the bulging cheeks? The man who never angered except when he did. How did this kindly grandfather disappear and be replaced instead by this spectre? By this symbol of the remove between politicians and people?

We had seen such a transformation once before. When the government lost the 2005 referendum president Kibaki stood up and sacked his whole cabinet. In him we saw steel on that day. He was not a man to be trifled with, he was someone who could be angry, who could respond to emotion, to anger, to loss, to defeat by lashing out. Our kindly grandfather could be a child throwing a tantrum after losing a favourite toy except he was made of steel and iron. Ice was his breath as he sacked them then and ice was his will when he lost again.

What is president Kibaki’s legacy?

Well I remember 2002 too. I remember those days and those nights. When instead of happy New Year we said NARC. When for a time politics wasn’t a divisive factor. It was something that brought people together. The flowers that rose, the balloons, the happiness of the first inauguration. I remember a president being sworn in surrounded by people who loved him and what he represented. I remember that the swearing in wasn’t a hastily put together event. It was a national day and anyone who wanted to be a part of it could be. It wasn’t hurried in order to put an irrevocable seal on stolen elections. There was foreplay, there was excitement, there was daylight, and there was happiness. He wasn’t surrounded by power he was surrounded by people. Here was a man who was handed Kenya in its prime a country of sun and flowers and brotherhood. Kenya stopped for that

I can’t quite remember how the second inauguration looked or at what time it was but in my mind it was always done in the evening. The sun was setting and already withdrawing its light from the earth. Those men, our leaders. The head of the judiciary and the head of the executive stood together on a lawn with no one to witness save one cameraman and muttered words at each other and with that he won his second term.

Is there a difference between the truth and what I believe to be the truth? There probably is. What I believe to be the truth is that president Kibaki stole that election. That in front of the eyes of the whole nation he conspired to sell our faith for his power. To sell our unity for his victory. Post-election violence didn’t happen just because of a stolen election and the First World War didn’t occur just because some archduke was assassinated. Things like this have far reaching reasons. Pains that reach back and wounds so large and scabbed over we don’t know they are wounds. But like the child playing with a tinderbox near a clutch of dynamite things need something to set them off. Like that child he had no idea what he was doing. No one who plans to rig puts so many eyes on himself.

This is what I think is his legacy: I never felt those wounds. I didn’t inherit the genetic memory of distrust, mistrust and tribalism that so many of my tribesmen carry around. I couldn’t see from physical features what tribe that person belonged to or from all but the most common surnames what part of the country this other person hailed from. I didn’t have that. I still don’t consider myself a tribalist, some of my closest friends and biggest crushes have been kikuyu but and this is what I blame him for, now in front of them I daren’t say what I know in my heart to be the truth. In my heart I know that the election was rigged but talking to people I love I still can’t tell them that. I don’t want the argument that may occur, and how tribalist is it of me to assume that just because they are kikuyu they automatically don’t want to hear this. In my mind this is what his legacy is a rift between me and these people. An automatic tribal assumption on my part. A fear of what my friends will say or think or how they’ll look at me if I just say what I believe to be the truth. The stench of hate that poisoned the air after that rigged election has not left us yet. The barrier is there and no matter what this is a legacy that that man has left behind. 

Monday, September 10, 2012


I like light, I like how it streams in through windows and doors, I love how it makes everything more real and lets you see the defects in things. Am not sure why but I like the defects in things. I like cracks and holes, wrinkles and laugh lines, folds and faults. Perfection is not for me and probably never will be maybe that’s why I have so many typos (that’s probably just laziness though.) the thing that makes us human are the things that we try to improve and no matter how much we work at them we never really get there. Perfection is a province of the gods and in all religions the gods seem unjustly cruel but maybe that’s the point of perfection, to the rest of us it seems unjustly cruel. It seems unfair that anything could hold a candle to the sun and burn it out with a dazzling light so bright it seems like just another star. Who of us hasn’t felt envy? Pure unaldurated envy of those who are better than us and of those who are, gods forbid, perfect. A beauty so sublime we can never hope to own it brings up both admiration and envy and for those of us not possessed of it seems cruel in every way. It seems unfair that someone can be so good at something without having to try and so of the best of us we demand self-deprecation and we revel in their faults. Michael Jackson could make music so moving that we found ourselves tapping along to it but when we found out about his faults, about the fact that he wasn’t perfect in every way we rejoiced in it. His mistakes eclipsed his bests so much that darkness fell over the rest of his life. The rich also cry a soap opera that I grew up with struggled to assure us, the essence of life is that no one is truly perfect and that we can never be. I remember reading about Descartes and his proof of a God, his contention began with the fact of flying pigs, we as humans can only imagine this fantastic creature because we have seen both pigs and wings and we just put them together but we never saw anything perfect, look close enough and the faults and cracks begin to show in anything. So this idea we had of perfection could only occur to us if a perfect being put it in our hearts. So I like faults, when I was younger I could never colour within the lines and even when I tried to trace a picture it never came out the way it should, the lines too shaky, the blurs too suggestive of fault and laziness and lack of skill that I gave up on art a long, long time ago. I can’t sing and this has never been something anyone hid from me, my voice trembles, I lose the tunes, I forget the beat. All that remains is the words. I don’t like perfection, I admire it but I don’t strive for it, “as good as” is my mantra because things should remain human.
But I like light. I throw the curtains in my room open when I sleep and yesterday the moon was on my side of the house. I could glimpse it through the window sending its white, steely light sneaking into the room. A burglar whose presence is there and whose breath can be felt but whose tread is so light that it doesn’t stir the sleepy. A light so faint that it never makes it to the other side of the room, a light so weak that we can’t read by it and we can’t quite see imperfection in it. A suggestion of how things should be is all it throws in objects. The cracks in the wall couldn’t be seen obscured by half shadows cast by the half flight creeping in. Stealing into my messy room with clothes strewn all over, allowed to fall where they may by day or night until they might be needed again.
For the first time this year I went down Thika road, the pride and joy of Kenyan infrastructure. The true beginnings of our vision 2030, a physical manifestation of the dream of our country, our hope that it can be better than it is. Filled with tunnels and directions, free flow of traffic and lanes and lanes and lanes. It had white streetlights casting down their power. The white looked like moon light
thrown by a dozen different moons each helping each other before the burglar’s torch stopped shining. Round ovals of light reaching down to illume the way for cars and the people in them. Thika road is beautiful. The ultimate compliment a Kenyan can give a piece of infrastructure is almost the perfect insult that a Kenyan can give a person, “it doesn’t seem Kenyan.”
I have some cousins visiting from England, my aunt emigrated some years ago and that’s all they know except for some visits back home. They get along perfectly with all my other nieces and nephews and cousins, boys and girls just beginning to write and read, still revelling in the magic that running really fast seems to have. When they travel between family houses they all pile into the car. They are so many there is not enough space for everyone on the seats. One of them has to sit on the, I have no idea what the name is for this part of the car; it’s the place between the co-driver’s and the driver’s seat. Whoever sits here sits looking back at her cousins, the centre of attention never having to crane a neck to listen to a piece of conversation. They obviously have no idea what this place is called either because they all refer to it as “Kenya.” As lustily as people of a certain age call shotgun they call Kenya. Everyone wanting to sit on this piece of land that they can’t back home or when the car is no longer so full, or when the scarcity of this resource and the need for its possession no longer make it desirable.
I was driving around with my aunt. We passed by rubbish heaps and the ride was one long collection of potholes as pockmarked as the face of an unlucky teenager. There was noise all around, the buildings we could see were deprecit and breaking down. The sunlight streamed down as strongly as it does in all the pictures of Nairobi we show to everyone. And in the stark sunlight Kenya was laid bare before us. Not the Kenya of Thika road where there is no space for pedestrians but the Kenya of everywhere else. A place of unending commerce where every single free space is carved out for the sale of this or that, where people don’t think twice before throwing away cigarette butts or mounds of chewed sugar cane. The cracks in the road big enough to snake around a car, the bumps so ill thought out they scratch the bottom of every car. She looked at it and said, “Kenya, you don’t have good things, but you have a good life.”

Because buried behind each of these things was something more. The noise was the noise of laughter and life, of people haggling and shouting. Feeling every emotion as big as they wanted to lending voice to anger, to joy, to despair and most of all to hope. The commerce carried out was filled with bargaining an opportunity to jest, to jape, to joke. The buildings carried families that loved each other, that were struggling to eke out an existence they could be proud of. The discarded cigarette butts were an affirmation of friendship or of the simple pleasure that giving in to an addiction can bring. The chewed sugarcane was once something crushed between teeth, something that squirted that cool refreshing liquid that life can sometimes be. This is another reason I like the light, take it and shine it down the fault lines, peer into the cracks with it and you can see something so beautiful, so happy that you will never want perfection again.

Friday, September 7, 2012


It’s not every day you hear a story about cannibals, well it was not every day when I heard this gem;

so, some friends of mine went with these guys we didn’t know to smoke some weed. They just left us there and greed is not good (this as far as I could tell was the moral of the story). As they are walking along to the guy’s place one of them confesses saying You see in our shags there are cannibals. ” Of course everyone starts laughing at this point because no one really believes this of Africa especially Africans, every story about cannibals I ever heard was a myth or a fable about addiction. The story goes on.

anyway my friends get to their place and they start smoking. As the blunt is being passed back and forth the story goes on, the guys tell them that cannibals have to be very careful when picking their victims. First they try to befriend you, they look for something you have in common, a shared hobby and then they start to do this thing with you. Says one guy as he takes a puff of the blunt and passes it to my friend.” This is the point in the horror movie where it seems magic exists, not explicitly but the lights have been turned down and the shadows are longer. A finger stretches far off into the distance and a shiver of fear can turn into a tremble of terror when the dark invites itself in to play with your mind. Plus marijuana has notoriously, hilariously paranoiac effects. All a policeman has to do to catch someone who’s been smoking is show up and look for the person who’s shifty and shifty eyed. The one who would rather look into the sun than into a badge.

It is at this point that someone joins the group of us listening and without any preamble is thrown into the story.

and these guys have all these details about killing people. One of them takes out a cooking pot and begins to cut tomatoes and onions, puts the water to boil as another tells them that the reason for the befriending is that you can’t just kill a person any which way if you want to make a meal of it. You can’t poison them because if you do that you’ll end up eating poisoned meat, you can’t drown them because the organs will become bulgy and distended, and you can’t stab them just anywhere because blood flow can mess up the meat. All this time there’s a guy there cutting up tomatoes, chopping onions putting water to boil, this blunt is going round and round and round as the story goes on.”

This is definitely the part in the movie where you shout at everyone to run. It may be a joke and if it is it’s a pretty elaborate joke. Someone else walks in to hear this jewel of a sentence

it’s not that easy to prepare a human body and eat it.”
He says, “I am not sticking around for any more of this conversation” and walks right out.

And I think we should follow him.

Monday, September 3, 2012


I love a good ending. I even like a bad ending because I need them. It bothers me when things don’t end when they are left up in the air waiting watching and never resolving. The only true endings we ever get are from stories and this year gave us a lot of endings, gave me at least. This year the Dark Knight trilogy ended and 8 wonderfully, hilariously, sarcastically, surprising seasons of Dr. House came to an end.

The thing about endings is that they always lead to ambiguous feelings. It’s almost impossible for an ending to satisfy as many people as the journey there did. It happens, that’s for sure but it only seems to happen when you don’t have to wait for the ending. It can happen when it’s just one movie, just one book or a series of movies and books that was made before you got around to watching or reading them. It never happens with something that’s on-going. For as much as we look forward to ending there is nothing in life more moving and meaningful than the journey there.

Last year I watched Game of Thrones and I loved it. I loved it so much I went and looked for the books that it was based on. 5 books had been written at this point and they ran to almost 7,000 pages but somehow I stuck with them. Well not somehow I loved all of them unabashedly. I began reading the first and literally didn’t stop until I had finished all 5. I would wake up at 10 in the morning (I was on holiday) and start reading. I wouldn’t stop. The sun would come up and go back down, there may be rain or hail for all I would care but I was stuck in the world of this book and nothing else mattered. I would eat in front of the book, make my toilet breaks increasingly rarer and match them with chapter breaks all because my life had changed. Night would come and I would read on. Midnight, 1 am, 3 am sometimes 4 am and I would drag myself off to sleep not because I wanted to but because years of training have taught me that sleep is important to the human cycle then at 10 am would be back where I had left off. And the cycle would repeat. When I went to sleep I would dream of these books. I would see myself as a character or interacting with the characters. My patters of speech would change. I would jape instead of joke, the proper way to spell sir was with an e, ser is still the real way knights are knighted in my mind. The cast of characters runs almost into the thousands but each of them was so fully realised that a name from the first book would show up in the fifth and I would remember that guy. The history of the world was at my fingertips, I knew the names, sigils and bannermen of the great houses, my loyalty shifted as I was introduced to more and more wonderful characters and I felt actual heartbreak when some of them died. An anger and grief so real it put almost everything else I had read to grey.

Also books and movies have an advantage of showing us people so completely much more than life. There is no one in the world whose whole history I know. Whose childhood and characteristics and the way they interact with this person’s destiny is fully revealed to me except when I read a book. I know them better than they know themselves I know them much better than I know myself because a lot of humanity is shaped by barely-remembered, half concealed memories. The things under a rock mean so much about who we are than the rock itself. With a book’s character we are on a first name basis with even the moss.

But back to the series of the books named a Song of Ice and Fire George R.R. Martin began writing them way back. The first came out in 1996 followed by an interval of 2 and 3 years which stretched to an interval of nearly 5 for the next 2. Meaning the 5th book came out in 2011. This is a proposed journey of 7 books. Optimistically this means the last book will come out in 6 to 7 years realistically it’s closer to 10. This while being an epic book series is also an epic journey. There will have been people reading this series of books for almost a quarter century when they finally read the last one.

I turned a quarter century a few months ago and it’s a long time. With something like this. Something that will so thoroughly be dissected by the internet and your own mind, a thing where you will mull over events and remember that one July 10 years ago it took you on perhaps the greatest book reading journey of your life. With something like this the ending will no doubt disappoint as many people as it thrills. But that’s the nature of endings, they are anti-climactic. Either they make the whole journey make sense which will be difficult to do after 25 years of some of the highest expectations I have seen put on a person or they don’t. What people really want is a never ending journey. We want to go on forever because all endings do is remind us that we too end. And I think that all the weight put on the shoulder of an ending has to do with this fact. At the end of our lives we want to look back and think it meant something, anything. An ending that doesn’t put meaning on everything that came before, that doesn’t glow backwards touching every word that came before it and making them all that much more is an ending that’s almost disappointing. They almost all are

And can we blame them? The person writing an ending never really experienced one. Just like the closest we come to knowing people inside out is literature, the closest we come to seeing endings is literature. But art is just a mirror and while a person drawing from a mirror can blow us away with the touches of reality that nevertheless come out it’s not the same. There are beautiful endings in books, in movies, endings that really do make us feel like it was all worth it and connected. They are less so in life. Julius and Jesus betrayed had beautiful endings. Something out of song and poetry but most endings just don’t make sense. Tom Mboya taken too soon, Fidel Castro passed over by the world no longer a fiery revolutionary who walked the world with Che Guevara but a tired old man besot by tired old man afflictions. Endings rarely do justice to the journeys that came before. I. We want the endings we see to make sense, in that way we treat everything as escapism, even the most gritty, realistic movie we expect to have an end befitting its journey when the truth is that this almost never happens. Maybe that’s why endings, almost all endings disappoint.

Still when I finally read Dreams of Spring in 6-12 years I hope for a kickass ending.