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Monday, April 29, 2013

the revolution was televised, book review and nostalgia trip

Sometime this year I heard that Alan Sepinwall, a great television critic had written a book. The book is called the Revolution was Televised and its concept was to track the changes in American tv over the last decade or so using 12 classic or at least game-changing television shows, he would interview the creators, the businessmen and financiers who made it possible and write a series long review of each looking at the sore points, the great points, the point that anyone who had watched them would remember. The 12 shows were Oz, the sopranos, the wire, deadwood, the shield, lost, 24, battlestar galactica, Friday night lights, mad men and breaking bad.

This list includes some of my favourite shows, shows that had given me hours and hours of viewing pleasure. i haven’t religiously watched all the shows, I remember Buffy from this really grainy KTN we used to have where static would break in every few seconds and words were more of an approximation than an actual sound. Oz was a show I enjoyed watching though I had to be on the lookout to avoid the gay scenes and maybe I was too young for some of the themes it explored of dehumanisation and loss of liberty, of racism and the various ways people use sex to assert power. I had never watched the Shield, in fact all I knew about it was an article in the time magazine about the very last episode of the show. In it Jamie Poniczwez goes on and on about how beautiful an ending it was, perfectly fitting to end 7 seasons of a show about the most corrupt policeman I had ever seen. So I began watching the shield and watched it and watched it. And that ending really was something. As close to a perfect ending of a long protracted series as I have ever seen and maybe ever will.

Then I read the book. There are ways American television has changed over the last decade and anyone who watches it can tell. There was a time you could drop in at any point in a series and pick it up and watch it just like you still can for an episode of CSI or almost any sitcom. The baggage of memory is not necessary to get the full enjoyment out of them. However there are other shows that need you to know the characters and care about them, that need you to hold plot points that seem very obscure when they first pop up but on closer inspection point to a larger plan. Can you imagine for instance anyone beginning game of thrones somewhere in the middle of the second season. It would be impossible to get a grasp of the people and their relationships, what beefs they have with each other and what history led to those beefs. Another way its changed is the nod to the morally grey areas of life. There was a time where the good guy was obvious, you knew who you should like, they were the great and the good but now the main character of the sopranos is a gangster who kills people, runs prostitutes and commits crimes for a living. Walter White of breaking bad becomes more and more unlikeable as the show goes on, everyone makes excuses for him and his actions but there is a breaking point for many and I came to mine sometime in the middle of the 5th season and I can’t like him anymore, he’s the villain of the piece. Don Draper can only find fleeting moments of pleasure in alcohol and adultery, Al Swearengen from deadwood ordered a hit on a child and her entire family and these are the people we should support.

I realised while reading the book that the best chapters or at least the ones that resonated most were the ones talking about shows that I had already watched. In the chapter about the sopranos (by David Chase) he talks about the “Pine Barrens” episode. This is an episode where Paulie and Chris, two of tony’s underlings try to kill a Russian. They think he’s dead and have to dump the body at a forest as snow is coming down all around them. The Russian jumps back to life and runs away. A few seasons later we are treated to a remembrance, the Mafiosi are playing a game of remember when? And they start talking about the crazy Russian they tried to kill laughing all the way, and because the viewer is in on the joke and the event the memories are that much more beautiful. The book goes all the way to the end, an ending that has been parsed and thought over by so many people there is actually a 20,000 word essay out there somewhere detailing why the ending means this and not that.

Next he talks about the wire by David Simon and I can’t begin to say the ways in which I love this show. Everyone describes it as a novel, as a really long novel. It starts ostensibly as a wire tap investigation into drug dealers, as it goes on it shifts focus every season expanding its scope until the activities of the police are just an excuse to tell the story of the city of Baltimore. The story of the decay of a city, of the futility of the institutions that people insist on believing in and a story about what the war of drugs means, “nobody wins, one side just loses more slowly.” In addition to all the bleakness there is plenty of humour. One of the drug dealers, Stringer Bell, has been taking economics classes and begins to introduce business practices to drug meetings, including proper meeting rules like yielding the floor and using a gavel. One of his lieutenants, a little too enthusiastic starts taking minutes, “you’re taking down minutes to a criminal conspiracy?” he asks in obvious shock.

Deadwood by David Milch was a show about a town in the wild west. It was about gold prospecting and bars and prostitutes but it was also about the formation of laws in a place without them and the signing of a social contract by the people who wish to be governed by them. It was also about all the beautiful words used to express these ideas, in one of the first episodes one of the characters gives this monologue, “I tell you what: I may have fucked up my life flatter’n hammered shit, but I stand here before you today beholden to no human cocksucker, and holdin’ a workin’ fuckin’ gold claim, and not the U.S. government sayin’ I’m trespassin’, or the savage fuckin’ red man himself, or any of these limber-dick cocksuckers passin’ themselves off as prospectors had better try and stop me.” It was the words that did it for me, everyone spoke as if reading from a dirty, prose poem. The town itself was dirty and muddy, fights and brawls ended with people smeared in mud so brown it looked like shit. And of course there was Al Swearengen the man who stole eloquence away from all of us. When comforting a co-conspirator who has beaten and beaten badly he says, “Pain or damage  don’t end the world or fucking beatings. The world ends when you are dead. Until then you got more punishment in store. Stand it like a man and give some back.” And it all came from the mind of a man who was expelled from university and said,” There were guns. There were police. There were street lights. I got arrested. I had become involved in quite a protracted pharmaceutical research project involving hallucinogens. It all seemed to come together so I was asked to withdraw.”

The shield by Shawn Ryan is a show about a corrupt police unit and the department they work out of. The main character is vic mackey who is a man’s man. This is a cop show where the cop will catch the drug dealer who ran away, he will break through doors, pull him down from fences, beat him up and coerce a confession out of him. it’s also a show that has you wondering why you support vic. In the end he is just as bad if not worse than most of the criminals he’s after. He justifies all the crimes he commits as being for the greater good, as cutting corners for the sake of getting to the destination faster. It also moves fast, it was a show that told 2 or 3 stories a week as opposed to most cop shows one. The pace was relentless and as Alan Sepinwall said, “you didn’t so much watch the shield as you got beat up by it for an hour before it went to grab a couple of beers and hustle a pimp.” However over those seven seasons you got to know those characters and care about them. This is why the ending was so amazing. There were moments of character, reminders of things that happened in the first episode a laying out of all you had seen in such stark terms that you couldn’t believe all the justifications you and vic had made

Lost by a lot of people but mainly damon linfeloff and carlton cuse. The chapter on this begins with a description of how the show came to be made. The way it was a perfect storm of disasters that led to it, a confusing hodgepodge of ideas and people and chance encounters and what-the-fuck? Why-the-fuck-nots that anyone who watched it through will remember as being familiar from the answers we got to all the mysteries on the island. The polar bear, the statue with four toes. These clearly pointed somewhere but just forgot where that somewhere was. This show had an ending that divided people clear down the middle. There were the people who wanted answers to the mysteries and an explanation of the mythology that they had been drawn to for nearly 6 years. They wanted the ending to give them that and that ending was never written. There were the people who loved the characters so much that a neat resolution for them, a chance to see them be happy was all they needed in order for them to be happy. That ending was written. For both groups though it was a wild ride, surprises, mysteries, shared parentage, emotional moments, tear-jerking reunions all of these and more were dumped in there during those 6 years and for some you had to love it.

24 by joel surnow. What to say about this show. Heart-pounding excitement is the nearest I could get, remember that time in season 5 when the screen split into six as they revealed the big bad? Jack bauer was a hero’s hero,  the man who never slept or peed. Not for him the tongue twisting techniques of most police dramas. He would ask “where is the bomb?” ask again, “WHERE IS THE BOMB ” and then shoot you in the leg. To think that the reason the show was made was because one of the creators was tired of doing shows that had only 22 episodes a season and wanted to try something different and so made one with 24 is a good thing to think on. One thing mentioned in the book that was clear to anyone who watched the show was that it ate up plot. There would be a bad guy and then a decoy bad-guy and then another guy who was pulling the strings and then the actual person and of course the mole at CTU. The creator talked about giving a character amnesia and said that he understood why daytime soaps kept returning to this plot point, its just what you have to do when something is this long or plot driven. 24 was also about all the horrible things that the American government allowed to happen to Jack Bauer and all the horrible things that he did on their behalf. All that blood and torture that haunted his dreams until in one of the final episodes he gives this speech to one of his protégés when she asks his advice on torture “You took an oath,” he tells her. “You made a promise to uphold the law. You cross that line, it always starts off with a small step. Before you know it, you’re running as fast as you can in the wrong direction, just to justify why you started in the first place. These laws were written by much smarter men than me, and in the end, I know that these laws have to be more important than the 15 people on the bus. I know that’s right. In my mind, I know that’s right. I just don’t think my heart could ever have lived with that. I guess the only advice I can give you is, ‘Try to make choices you can live with.’”

Battle star galactica by Ronald moore was a sience fiction series that started off with a bleak premise. The humans have created a race of artificially intelligent robots. They then go to war with them, there is an armistice and peace for a few years then the robots attack committing a genocide that wipes out all of humanity except for the ones aboard the battlestar galactica and companion civilian ships. From here it sets out to tell stories about what it means to be human and how far we would go to preserve our race. There is an episode about abortion and whether it would be right to allow it to stand as legal in a time when there are fewer than 50,000 humans. Each episode begins with a count telling you how many humans still live and as the series go on you see that number reduce steadily. The race of robots, called cylons, are also explored.T they have a religion, they have different personalities, they have conflicts. They have all the things that make us human and the question becomes whether or not they are human. There is a sequence of  episodes concerning itself with the moral and ethical issues behind suicide bombers and an occupying force that almost any country that has been colonised or done colonising can relate to in its cultural memory. The humans are on a search for a lost colony called earth and the last season deals with despair of the kind that can only happen when your last hope is gone. Suicide and love and complicated father-son relationships along with an education minister who is promoted to presidency because of the line of succession and takes the mantle over so well that when she threatens war and destruction even the audience shakes in its boots all thread through a story that’s ultimately about survival and hope and all the things we hold on to until there is nothing else.

Friday Night Lights by Peter Berg is a tv show based off of a movie that’s based off of a non-fiction book that’s based on a year in the life of an American football team deep in the heart of texas. The show itself is a fictionalised take on the book and movie. At the heart of the show are a coach and his wife and their marriage that’s at times difficult but ultimately very happy. The show also takes a look at the high school children who have such high expectations placed on them by the town they live in. they have to win the game and go to playoffs and go to state and win that state championship ring and carry the weight of the hopes of a whole town with them. In such times they turn to alcohol and sex and all the other ways of coping that teenagers have. The first episode ends with the paralysis of a star quarterback due to  a football injury and the rest of the season charts the struggle to both put him back together and get the team in working shape. As the show progresses the children get older and actually leave high school. It tracks what it means to have been practically a god and then have to fit into the skin of a college student. It turns its focus to the black side of town and begins to deal with problems of drug addiction and race and the kind of crippling poverty that America seems to reserve for its minorities. It does all this while putting on a game of football and a smile in everyone’s faces.

Breaking Bad by Vince Gilligan is the show that may be easiest to describe. It’s about a high school teacher who is diagnosed with cancer. He then starts cooking meth in order to put aside some money for his family. Except that such a description does not begin to deal with the layers and layers under the show. The creator has said it’s a story of mr. chips turning into scarface. I have no idea who mr chips is but I do know scarface as a drug lord who drove away or to death all the people who mattered most to him until in the final scenes his sister tries to kill him and an army of assassins succeeds where she fails. In breaking bad walter white starts out as a bumbling adult who you feel sorry for because of all the humiliations he has to endure. His obvious intellect isn’t enough to gain him respect in a world where money, fear and power rule. Then he gets his diagnosis and falls into the criminal underworld. A place for which he is remarkably well suited. This isn’t a campy comedy like weeds where the stakes are only raised after seasons and seasons. In breaking bad the drug trade is a dangerous world where you either kill or are killed and this is a lesson walt soon learns. He gets high off of the success and is soon afflicted with the kind of pride that leads a man to fly too close to the sun. in addition he does some reprehensible things to the people close to him. Things so horrible that I just don’t like him anymore and don’t understand the people who do, are they watching the same show as me? This show ends its run this year and I can’t wait to see the end of this character arc, the moral truth of the universe he inhabits and quite frankly some of the most beautiful scenes and cover songs ever put together for a tv show.

Mad Men is a show about an ad agency set in the 60s. at first glance it looks like an excuse for sexism and cigarettes and alcohol at the office. However when you watch it you find its about something much more important. The main character don draper seems to have all the things that a man would want out of life. Respect, power, a beautiful wife, a sexy mistress, a job that he’s great at. But he’s deeply unhappy. So deeply that none of his addictions works for very long. He sells these great ad ideas to companies. Beautiful ideas that sketch out the outlines of a life we all long for and allow the viewer to fill in the fantasy with his own details but he can’t sell the same to himself. When one of his mistress asks him what he wants for the new year he says, as he’s wrapped around her glorious naked form, “to stop doing this.”. In those words at that time you can tell he means it. He doesn’t want to be there in her arms or in any of the places his sadness drives him. its not all bleak though, roger sterling a happier man because he doesn’t seem to think at all about life brings to the show some of the best one liners ever made including:

(on the death of a secretary in the office), “she died as she lived, surrounded by people she answered phoned for.”
(an apology for hitting on a colleague’s wife), “at some point we’ve all parked in the wrong garage.”
“Being with a client is like being in a marriage. Sometimes you get into it for the wrong reasons, and eventually they hit you in the face,” “Jets are made for dropping bombs on Moscow, not French cuisine,” “Well, my wife likes fur, but you don’t see me growing a tail,”

“in greek nostalgia literally means the pain from an old wound,” Don Draper tells the man from Kodak. “it’s a twinge in your heart, far more powerful than memory alone.” This is what I feel is great about these shows. The time spent with them allows you to feel actual nostalgia for these fictional characters as they go about their daily lives and as you remember different facets of each. I felt nostalgic when reading the book and again when writing this pseudo-review that turned into a mini-summary of all the shows I watched and loved. So, was the revolution televised, I feel like it was when I watch shows like game of thrones with its nearly hundred talking characters or the americans with one of the most complicated and interesting marriages I have ever seen. But then I’ve always loved tv.

Monday, April 22, 2013

at the mingle

I always wanted to go for the mingle. I loved the idea behind it: bring your own alcohol, meet other people who bring their own alcohol and start doing it(this is what is known in some circles as a pervert trap) while the sun shines. On Saturday I finally did

The thing is though that until that moment when it happens you don’t really know what it means to bring your own alcohol. I called just to make sure, I took a ticket and did a very un-Kenyan thing, planned for the future. The person at the other end of the phone told me that you can bring a drink but not a soft drink. Make sure it’s alcoholic. We went on Saturday having stocked up in a bag that one of three would have to carry until we eventually went home. This time it was at the ngong racecours. They asked for id, they asked to search the bag. They warned us that we shouldn’t bring in any food.

“I hope hakuna food hapo, makali tu.” I hope there’s no food in there, just liquor.

“makali tu, hata wine haiwezi ingia?” only liquor? You mean even wine can’t enter?
Wine ni sawa wine is ok.

We walked in and someone offered to take polaroid picture of us, for free, we promised to return and did something that we would do a lot that day, we walked to the end. It was afternoon so it wasn’t packed yet. We said hello to a few people we knew as we walked to the edge of the field. There were all kinds of stands apart from the photo booth, there was basketball, there was a bouncing castle and a trampoline, and one of those catapult things you get inside that a launch you into the air, and a bubble of air in a swimming pool that you stand inside of and enjoy the disorienting pleasure of always falling, I mean who came here and didn’t want to fall for something. It reminded me immediately of one of those carnivals you see on American TV, I thought I would run into one of those shows where a guy swallows a sword especially after I saw that there was also cotton candy.

I had gone with my brother and my cousin and once we got to the edge of the known world we kept walking. The racecourse is made for watching and betting on races, there are stadium tents arranged all over it and the further away you get from the main action the quieter it gets. We went to the furthest one and had a seat. We took out our glasses, poured them for everyone and sat down to enjoy a drink. In the distance there were people playing golf because…diversify. Even further the forests of ngong began to come into view and just like that we weren’t in Nairobi any more. I love cities but after a while a view of green is necessary just to make you feel part of the world. On one side music and games played on the other golfers did. On the bench below us there was a guy with a gun. An AP who had been posted there for the day, when he saw us come with a drink he asked if we would share and after pouring some we took it down to him.

“I hope haujaweka mchele” I hope you haven’t spiked it (mchele is a word used to describe not only rice but a drug of a more potent kind, pour a little of it into a drink and the poor man-Kenya being so feminist that there are higher instances of guys being roofied than anyone else-  goes to sleep as you relieve his wallet of whatever’s inside. Someone told me once that one of the ladies who do this was interviewed and she said, “hawa walevi ni wajinga, unawawekea mchele na wanarudi kesho tu, wanadhani ni pombe imewapeleka drunkards are stupid you spike their drink and they are back tomorrow, they think it was the alcohol they couldn’t handle.”)

What I will remember about the mingle is how it’s a mini-walkathon, at least the way I do it. We got up from that place and began walking, looking for some trouble to get into and immediately looking for a way to get out of it. By the end of the day there were thousands of people there (maybe not though I cannot estimate these kind of things) I kept losing the people I had arrived with and then not caring about it anymore. I kept meeting people I knew from before, exchanging conversation, a hug, a drink, an awkward pause in conversation, a goodbye.

By this time it had roared into life. Over there a game of football was going on in earnest, over there people were playing in a pool, closer still someone just loved the way it felt to dance in the rain and still the alcohol flowed. The sun set and I played the only game I would play that day. I went and shot hoops. At first it was simple but I kept missing and then we got the hang of it and then it became complicated and I kept missing. Afterwards I was dragged to a trampoline. That was when I got a call to go back to the place it had all begun.

I went to sit and talk and drink. The view by this time was grey and the firs in the distance looked black. They looked like sentinels posted to guard the evening sky and make sure no one stole what was being provided at that point, a view to break your heart.

As we walked back to the party I happened to look down at my shoes. Because of the rain, because of my walking, because of the mud they were brown. There was an even coat spread all over them, thing is they were boots and I couldn’t figure out how all these other people, some of them in open shoes, some even in sandals managed to look so clean.

I took out a bottle of wine I had been saving for just such an occasion, all it needed was a corkscrew and I reasoned that there must be one in all these purses and so my search for that began in earnest. I got so much advice about how to open wine. I sometimes forget just how theoretical advice can be.
“just push it in” (that’s what she said)
(against my best instincts I said) “I don’t know how to” (and now when I look back at that interaction I wonder why I’m surprised she didn’t give me her number)

In the end I made for the bar. There is a Japanese word that means the bliss you feel when you are lost in a crowd. I felt it as I walked to bar, wine in hand, glasses in the other swinging both back and forth, being stopped by all these people who knew me or, at least, knew how a bottle of wine looked. I got a corkscrew from the barkeep and began walking back. Swinging more wildly, swigging a tad unwisely until I was back where I began talking to the most honest girl I had ever met, showing off my success about opening the wine and hoping this meant she would forgive that I didn’t know how to push it in. (the patron saint of lost causes is one of my best friends)

As the night wore on more and more people got more and more drunk. Thankfully I was not one of them because of a regime of water and water. Every once in a while someone would be dragged out by a bouncer for causing too much fracas. They also helped girls take care of their too drunk friends which was a great thing.

Towards the night when the stars come out I was wondering what looked so familiar. It wasn’t the carnival that I had come for because all that was was fictional memories put there by television (a cousin of mine when she was very, very young used to call out “TV, TV” when she saw white people on the street.) then someone captured it perfectly, “hii ni funci” it was just like those things, girls to meet, trouble to have except we had all the trappings of adulthood. There are very few feelings as nice as having the opportunity to do a childhood thing again except have no rules because now you are over 18.

So, my advice? Go for the next mingle.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

my week in interactions

1.  I’m in a matatu and all I have is 120 shillings. I’m not sure what the fare is so when I’m asked to pay I hand over the 20 shillings and look away,
“gari ni 30” the car is 30
“oh.” So I give him the 100 shillings and he hands me back the 20. I sit back and enjoy the ride for a few minutes.
“umenipatia ngapi?” how much have you given me
“una hakika?” you are certain?
“ndio, nilikupatia mbao ukasema fare ni 30 nikakupatia soo ukarudisha hiyo mbao” yes, I gave you twenty you then said fare is 30 I then gave you 100 and you returned the first 20
“una hiyo mbao?” you have that 20?

I assume that what’s happening is that he needs the 20 in order to give me back change in an easier manner for us both and so I reach into my pocket and find nothing there. I reach into the other one and find nothing there. I do that half standing up thing people do when they are in matatus and their money is in the back pockets, I reach into it and find nothing there, I reach into the other one and find nothing there. I brush down my chest because I sometimes put money in my breast pocket and find nothing there not even a pocket.

It’s not a case of theft because I’m sitting next to people I know and in fact my phone is still there.

“siwezi ipata.” I can’t find it
“una hakika ulinipatia soo?” you’re certain you gave me 100
“eeehhh” this is say with a bemused smile.
“basi wapi hiyo mbao? Hauwezipatiwa pesa ukapoteza haraka hivyo, nisaidie hiyo mbao” then where is that 20?you can’t be given money and then you lose it quickly like that, help me with that 20
He goes on for a while and I realise I’m getting a lecture and this irks me.
“mi ndio nimepoteza pesa, usianze kunipatia lecture juu mi ni mcareless, already nafeel vibaya.” I am the one who’s lost money don’t start giving me a lecture because  I am careless. Already I feel bad about this.
“lakini, pia wewe unawezaje tupa pesa hivyo, kwani una shimo kwa mfuko.” But even you how can you throw away money like that, is it that you have a hole in your pocket?
I check my pockets again but now for a hole and I don’t find one.
“kama hauna pesa ungesema bado ningekubeba.” If you don’t have money you should have said i would still have carried you
“Si ati sina pesa ata we unajua nimekupatia pesa saa hii. ” it’s not that i don’t have money even you know i have given you money just now
“Usijali, labda utapata nyumbani, lakini ukifika uangalie, ukiwacha bibi akuvue trou atachukua na asubuhi utashindwa kwwani pesa yangu iliend wapi. ” don’t worry maybe you’ll find it at home, but when you reach, look. If you leave it to your wife to take off your trouser she’ll take the money and in the morning you’ll be asking yourself where your money went.
“Lakini saa zingine nawacha hapo ndio anitoe trou. ” but sometimes I do that just so she can strip me
“Ahhh… lakini wacha nikuambie ukitaka kuweka pesa na uko na bibi lazima ufikirie sana, usiku ataingia na aichukue, ukiamka utashindwa kwani jana kuliendaje, na ulitaka kuiweka kwa bank. Ni tu ukirudi nyumbani na upate nyama ndio utajua Ilichukuliwa. ” ahhhh…but then let me tell you if you want to put money away and you have a wife you must put a lot of thought to how you will do it at night she will enter and take it and never let you know and you’ll  be asking yourself what happened the previous day. it’s just when you get back home and find meat waiting for that you will figure out what happened,
“Ahhh. ”

By the time I leave the matatu we are old friends and I woke away feeling like that lost 20 bob was worth that conversation.

2.  There are  these two kids who over the weekend asked for money outside school. On Friday only one of them was there. He had one of those signing sheets that show how much money you have raised for a particular cause and he was giving everyone he could meet to sign it before he took their money. I asked him what he was raising money for and he said it was for orphans, being in a good mood and feeling rich I gave him a 50(on the list thing there were only 200s and 100s beside the names) and I told him not to put that down there but to take it and go enjoy himself.

On Saturday he’s there again. He approaches me and I remind him that we met yesterday. His friend comes around and his friend is selling groundnuts. He has put them into these cones and made a cover for the cone just like it’s the 90’s. I’m nostalgic and a little drunk and so I get one. I see one of my classmates and I get him one too. Somehow I begin to have a conversation with the first kid again and he tells me the real reason he’s collecting money is because he needs it to buy unga. I ask him how much he has and he says 40, I ask him how much he needs and he says 200. I’m touched (drunk is a much better word) and I give him a 20 to help along. Then I go to some of my classmates and try to sell them a shot of my alcohol for a coin so that I can give the child. They inform me in stark terms that I shouldn’t feel sorry for the kids, that they are out hustling and this is their business getting hearts to bleed and wallets to open, that in fact they should be in school and what’s happening is they asked someone to sign the class register the way we usually do and then went out to make money (despite the fact that it’s a Saturday and we’re only here for the sports day.)

On Monday I see the kid again just after I bought a mango outside the school gate. He approaches me with his list of donors, stops and walks away with a rueful smile. I call him over and offer him a piece of the mango(the vendor peels them and cuts them into these tiny edible pieces and packs them in a small paper bag.) he reaches in and takes a piece and asks if his friend can also have one. He calls him over and he comes still selling his groundnuts. He reaches in and takes the biggest piece there is and walks away before I have a chance to smile at his balls.

3. I was having a beer with some of my high school friends the other day. A big, bunch of atheists. (Sample conversational throwaway "our pope richard dawkins says we should be more militant" another sample, "this guy needs to be put down he thinks he's Jesus Christ" "Jesus was put down too") Soon the conversation turned to griping about Christians and how hypocritical they all are, how they condemn everyone to hell and how the things they do are some of the worst sins of exploitation there are. One of them mentions this house girl who makes 5,000 shillings a month and promptly gives it to Margaret Wanjiru. This leaves her with 2,500 shillings a month to run her life with. A life that includes children and fees and clothes and emergencies. This money is given to a woman who will use it to buy gold, jewellery, big cars and fund political campaigns and maybe use some of it to help those less fortunate but this last one is the only one we are making an assumption about. The thing is though sometimes atheists are as guilty of being judgemental as Christians are. A Christian will say all atheists will go to hell but according to his religion that’s a valid view point. An atheist(not every, just some) will meet many, many such Christians in his lifetime and say that all Christians are judgemental hypocrites this statement though is contrary to the atheist’s way of viewing the world which demands rigorous scientific testing before claiming a hypothesis to be true. As he hasn’t met all or even most Christians this statement is patently false.

My friend did make the point though that religion has been used as a vast propaganda machine. He talked about how Ruto thanked God for a successful campaign and used all the Christian sentiments of how he couldn’t have done it alone and all they achieved was thanks to the almighty.

“Now how easy is for him to say to a believer, you know that IDP problem ?God will take care of it, you’ve been dirt poor all your life? God will take care of it. And just like that you remove all responsibility from the hands of humans and their leaders. If it doesn’t work out immediately...God works in mysterious ways, the time is not yet here.”

There are a lot of valid reasons for religion. The hope it give to people and sense of peace that they have but it is undeniably also a vast tool of propaganda.

This conversation reminded me of a conversation I had earlier in the year with a friend from school. It was just after elections and he was explaining to me the way amani (peace) had been used as propaganda.
“You know the biggest propaganda machine this election has been this idea of amani, let’s love each other. It’s been used to shut up people all over. No one can really say what they want to because they will be told they are against peace. Raila wants to petition the results he will be told now why, just accept what happened, don’t you want peace in our country, isn’t our peace more important than your win.
I didn’t really agree with him, not completely. Peace is a good thing therefore  it can’t be used for propaganda, asking for peace can’t be a bad thing. The Oxford Dictionary defines propaganda as information usually of a biased and misleading nature used to promote a particular political point of view. Usually does not mean always and the point of view we were being asked to believe was that there shouldn’t have been any question as to the election validity.

5.  I got on a mat a day after chilling with the atheists and turning my mind to propaganda. The conductor had a gravelly voice, the kind that’s made of  rough stone that seems to keep falling off if you rub it really hard. It’s soothing at first but after a while it gets grating. He gave everyone the following good advice just before we came to a turn in the road.

“fungeni dirisha hapa kuna vijana wenye hawapendi kumwaga jasho ndio wapate unga.”
Close your windows there are some youth here who don’t like to pour sweat so they can buy food.

Earlier he was overloading and asking everyone to sit 4 to 4.

“si wote ni wakenya msijali…si wote ni wakenya…ni mzuri tukipendana hivyo tu, songa kidogo ti… si ni watu wa amani”
We are all Kenyans don’t worry…we are all Kenyans….its good if we love each other like this, just like that, move over a little…. We are people of peace
He said this every time he sent someone else to join us in the back.


Monday, April 15, 2013

you know that feeling when...

In the Meaning of Liff  Douglas Adams talks about all the small and not so small emotions and things that we go through in life from time to time without being able to talk about. Language can be inadequate to express all the things that we experience and without a word for something it’s almost impossible to say what we went through. There’s a Stephen King short story called “that feeling we only know how to say it in French.” It’s about déjà vu. Without this word think how hard it would be to say what had just happened. You know that feeling when you go into the kitchen to get something and you get there and you can’t remember why you are there? There’s now a word for this thanks to the meaning of liff. For guys, you know that feeling when you don’t shake well enough and it feels like a flood happened in your trousers?  there should be a word for this. One of the ones I really like is to quote Zadie Smith, “that grief you feel for someone you never knew who created something beautiful that you loved.” This happens when a musician, an actor, a writer dies. It’s not exactly grief, it’s not exactly sorrow but it feels like those things. It’s the closest approximation. For those who smoke, you know that kind of missing that you only ever have for your smoking buddy when you go to the smoking zone and you are standing all alone? Deserves a word.

So there I am all alone and this old guy comes towards me and starts talking about his high school. Well, he went to high school a long, long time ago. They got a new head master once and the headmaster quickly decreed a smoking zone. He actually said that students couldn’t smoke just anywhere for safety reasons like fires starting. He designated a tree somewhere in the compound and said that was the smoking zone. So people began to go there, the brave ones and then after a while the ones who weren’t so brave. I believe even in those liberal times it must have been quite a rush to sit down and smoke with your headmaster. After some time the headmaster stopped allowing new members into the club, just those who had been there from before. A while later he said, “I think we have been smoking too much, from now we will only smoke after lunch.” Status quo changed yet again. Then he made the inevitable pronouncement, “no more smoking in my school.” Now he knew who the smokers were and could catch them quite easily.

“But for us who never went there we just continued.”


I have a bad habit, okay another bad habit, of plucking leaves as I walk past plants. I don’t know why I do this but I do. I reach down and take a bud and then throw it away. I used to have this stupid justification, right after the no-littering rules came into moral and legal effect I told myself that it was because I missed littering and the act of throwing organic material filled that hole without hurting the environment. Win-win. Of course this was stupid and not the real reason.


There are a lot of lessons to the story of Cain and Abel. It’s an epic story of jealousy and sibling rivalry. It’s a story of revenge and murder and retribution. Of sadness and sorrow sown in a kind of love we have all felt before, the one that comes from a sibling. And even only children feel this(another thing there should be a word for, what do you call people with no siblings?). It’s the love that you feel for someone who stands with you against the world, against the order that’s being imposed on you, against rules that you don’t understand and conspiratorially winks at you as you try to trick everyone else. It’s the love of a friend and to see this turned to hate and murder and the first CSI episode ever is something that we can learn a lot from. One thing that people will always say half-joke fully is that God likes meat, you see he turned down the vegetables.

I don’t think the fact of this was a throwaway remark. I don’t think it was a remark about God either. It was about what we value more and the fact that that’s what should be our sacrifice. Is there a doubt in any of our minds that a man who supposedly lived 6,000 years ago before all the arguments about vegetarianism gained vogue would have preferred a meal of meat to a meal of vegetables. There is none in my mind that Cain liked meat more than vegetables and giving his God something less than what he would have wanted is the real sin.

Why do we like meat more than vegetables? I’m going to forward a crackpot theory that I’ll throw out  with the baby in a few years. It’s the same reason I like to pluck leaves out of things. There is something life affirming about death and killing. In order for us to take any breath something has to die. Food is only something that once was and without its death it would never have served us. On a more microscopic level things are dying all the time. Digestion is a process of breaking things down to their basest forms. Putting them through acid, making them smaller and smaller until they are as little recognisable as life before we then use them to build the thing that we recognise as life more than anything else, our bodies.

Things have to die in order for us to live. We don’t have to kill them, but if we do maybe we feel more alive. There is a feeling you get when you kill a chicken and its warm blood spills on the floor and then comes out in jerking spurts until its breath stops heaving- this too needs a word if only to help us identify the serial killers among us even faster. The feeling doesn’t exist for plucking a leaf from a plant, maybe it does but in such a removed infinitesimal amount that its not really the same. For most normal people the feeling changes as it gets bigger. It’s not a joyous feeling because whoever said life is joyous. It’s different and it has in it layers of disgust that fight to come to the front as the life you take gets bigger and bigger and more akin to your own. A goat is harder to kill both physically and psychologically. A pig, the way it has to be hit with a hammer so hard it passes out, the less said about that the better. A horse, a dog, a monkey. As it comes closer to us there is a lot more of the despair of life.


This is not a post about murder no matter how increasingly it looks like one but as anything that starts with smoking it’s a post about self-injury. It’s an age-old question why so many of the things that make us feel so alive also kill us. Those exhilarating, danger filled moments and times. Drinking too much, eating too much, smoking too much (I’d say sex but that doesn’t kill you it’s the attendant diseases, the side effects not the actual effects.) I read that a study showed that smokers are happier when taxes on cigarettes are increased because they become more expensive and so they smoke less. You see they really aren’t happy when they smoke. They know it’s wrong more than anyone else does. There should be a word for not being able to stop even if you know something is wrong, oh yeah addiction.

Friday, April 12, 2013

to conversation

On one on one of the many, many holidays we have had recently I was walking to the shop and I saw this group of three. There were 2 girls and a boy. They weren’t significant in anything, not their dressing, not their gait but something demanded that I look at them more carefully. What it was was that they all had earphones in their ears, and not in one ear the way people do when they have no idea how rude they are being but both the way they do when there is no one around but them and their music. It was obvious that they were together, the way they walked, the tight formation they kept, but it was also obvious that they weren’t. Not in any conversational way at least, they had stoppered the world and each other from intrusion into their own personal space.

The last group of three people Inoticed I can remember pretty well, I remember that it was outside the chips shop near the university of Nairobi where there’s a flyover coming together now. I was walking behind them and some or all of them must have been audibly Impaired. You see as they walked they were signing to each other. It was beautiful in that way that only silence can be, the conversation seemed to have all the contours of a normal conversation, excitement and maybe even interruption though I’m not sure this is strictly possible, it looked like they were walking through another world as if they were in a bubble where action became speech.

I wonder about technology and what it can do that can brings us together as a species. The truth is probably a lot. I am much more connected to the people in the US and UK, and the Ukraine and Russia and all these other random places that I get blog hits from than I could ever have been if there had been no internet. What it does to our interpersonal connections may be a different story though. Without internet, without television, without interruptions I would probably have been much closer to my family and friends than I am now. The thing about technology is that it increases the quantity of our connections, like a good book it plugged us more into the idea of being human as a species, as a whole than anything else before it. Every human being should know Bob Marley for example because that’s one of our cultural landmarks but we only know him because of radio waves and all the things that made the world smaller. Every human being should know the moods and emotions of the people around them, they should know their neighbours and when they walk with people they should be able to talk to them but because of technology a lot of times these things are not necessary.

I don’t think technology is to blame, not wholly because sometimes we just don’t know the person we spend so much of our time with. They can’t talk to us for this or that reason and they are scared that we don’t understand what they are going through. And this is one place where technology has managed to improve in some way the quality of human interaction. It reminds us that we are not alone, somewhere someone else has gone through an experience that we have and now we can hear about it and read about it and not feel so alone.

I was sad, very sad some time back and I was reading a book called East of Eden. It was one of those books that felt God-sent it had had all these passages on grief and how to deal with it. It wasn’t a self-help book but a novel, a novel in which a lot of sad things happened and the characters needed to comfort each other. One of them said about grief, “given enough time you won’t remember how you felt, you’ll just remember that you felt it.” Isn’t that better than the generic “it will be ok” that I now believe grief stricken people hate to hear. It doesn’t matter that it’s true; it feels false, it feels like a sentiment that this person did not work very hard for; it feels too generic to fit the specific kind of pain that any sort of grief brings. This sentiment though was all that was waiting for me outside the pages of this book (though primitive this is still a kind of technology.) either that or forced small talk because you can’t share your sadness with just anyone. When I was lost in that book I didn’t feel sad, my life receded and what happened to the characters mattered.

I would get on buses and not want to sit near any of my classmates and one time this guy sat next to me. I tried, I tried to talk to him but nothing in our conversation could bring me out of myself. As soon as he picked up his phone to text someone I brought out my book and began to read. I justified it to myself that I needed this more than I needed to be nice, that it was a special situation and I wouldn’t ordinarily do this and in the end I felt really bad about it. Not as bad as I would have felt without that escape from the world but bad enough that I remember that I felt it months later.

Everyone, anyone can agree that it’s rude to pick up a book and begin to read it in the company of other people. It’s not something that we take lightly, especially not in a social situation. I notice the person who does that and I think many people do. How come this is a worse crime than listening to your earphones when you are with somebody. It’s difficult to know exactly why someone is listening to their earphones when they are with you(I guess I should say listening to music or something) maybe they too need that escape that only music at that time can provide. Many times that’s not true though and I don’t get why it’s more socially acceptable to listen to music than to read. If I had the book on my phone I would have whipped it out and read and he would have assumed I was doing something that had to do with communication. There would have been almost no guilt there.

For some reason we are more accepting of more recent technological innovations taking us away from the present place and time. I wouldn’t argue that we should be ok with people reading books at parties and at pubs. I think I would argue instead that people shouldn’t read on their I-pads(or play temple run-that’s all I do when someone lends me an I-pad) when they are in the company of others. Technology and probably modern living have taken away the beauty of conversation, the lilting rhythms that words used to have when older people spoke them.

Ise chiewo?
Ase chiewo.
Have you already woken up?
I have already woken up.
All these things that our grandmothers said to us that kicked in the urge for sarcasm somewhere in us. There was probably a reason for that. Time was a more elastic thing then and that’s probably changed more because of modern living but conversation has also staled in its own way. Why would a city like Nairobi, a city of millions of inhabitants not have a lounge where I can go and sit and drink and talk without shouting over music so loud I wake up with a ring in my ears. How is it possible that there is no market for people who want to talk at night instead of shout, who value the rhythm of that conversation much more than they do the beat of music they didn’t choose. The only option is to go to a local(bars near your living area that are usually considered dingy because, well many of them are you see locals are never known for their clean toilets.)

It’s foolish to make an argument for less technology in a place where only technology allows it to be seen. So I’ll try not to so much anymore. It’s necessary, it’s a part of our lives, we evolved to it and this is how our brains work now. The sheer quantity of connections and knowledge we make and access makes us feel more alive. A conversation can do that to, so consider this an argument for conversation. One of the most beautiful art forms the world has ever had.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

getting home part 2

I’m in a matatu on the way to school when it makes an illegal stop to pick up some guy. I’m sitting on the only truly comfortable seat in Kenyan matatus, the one in front, near the window not near the driver. I hate giving up this seat as will happen when someone is picked up who wants to sit in front. When the matatu stops I usually get out and let the other person in, this doesn’t always work. In fact it only works with men my age. For people of age I feel to guilty, for people of girth I understand why I have to move, for people of a certain mien I move without being asked.

This time I move for 2 reasons, we have stopped in the middle of the road and there you have to move since  there’s no time to stop and the guy is using  crutches. He enters and this conversation ensues between him and the driver

“Usijali hauwezi shikwa juu yangu.” Don’t worry you can’t be caught on my account. I laugh because I assume he’s making fun of his injury
“Sawa” ok
“Eh wao ndio watashikwa” yer its them who will be caught
“Na we umetoka wapi?” and you where are you from?
“Hapa tu, kukunywa kabla tuende nyumbani. Ongeza volume” just here, drinking before we go home. Increase the volume. He says this as he makes a tippling gesture, then he lurches to the radio control knob and adds the volume by a few factors.
“Hapa hatufanyanyangi hivyo” Here we don’t do it like that. The driver says  reducing the volume, mildly irritated.
“unataka nilipie ashu ya volume? Shika….” You want me to pay ten shillings for the volume? Here…
We get to his stage and there’s a lady in a red top which most Kenyans know is the colour of choice for one half or our ruling coalition. “Ah atanimefika. Ambia huyu we ni mtu wa TNA na ataingia, mama ni matatu ya TNA. ” ah I have reached. Tell this one you are a person of TNA and she will enter. Lady, it’s a matatu for TNA.

He gets off and I get to school 90 minutes later than I should. The reason I’m so late is a different, uninteresting story having to do with feeling lazy. Class ends early and I decide I’m not going to town. It was Friday  and there had been  a downpour during class, the kind that sends you off into daydreams. The kind that rattles the roof and (at least that day) blows open the door to the classroom and sends in sprays of water, tiny droplets that moisten the floor and break into almost gaseous atoms. I’m sure that it will take me 3 hours to get to town and anyway I can go through ngong road and get off near the nakumattt junction walk that long, long hill and be near a place where I can get home. You see our school is in Rongai Karen and the last few days it’s taken me hours to get to town. This is something I don’t want to repeat, plus this really hot girl is taking the matatu to Karen.

This decision is in many ways the most stupid one I made last week. First thing, it’s stupid to think you can plot to sit next to someone when matatus are as packed to the rafters because of the rain. We get packed in, she sits in front and I get sent to a pre-Michuki seat. The one in the third row of the matatu found in the space between the two seats. A place where your ass just stays in the air and all you’re really doing is being supported by the ass bones of those near you. It starts to rain again. The rain rattles the roof of the matatu and streaks its windows. Quickly the matatu gets that kind of stuffy that only happens when it rains. The air outside may be fresh but inside it’s hot, stuffy and mono-oxidant. I look out the window and I am surprised by how quickly it’s flooded. Karen wasn’t a place made for drainage; the water has turned a sludgy brown and rushes along. I can’t hear it but I imagine it makes that sludgy sound that only deluges can.

We get to Karen and I need to get another matatu. This is when I realise that maybe I made a bad decision, I have to walk to get to the next matatu and it’s raining felines and canines now. Quickly I’m wet. It soaks through the short sleeved shirt that I’m wearing and completely wets my hair in the 5 minutes it takes to find a matatu. I sit there and let the wet fall off my hair, rubbing it off, feeling some of it get into my right earhole. This sends shivers up and down me. I’m cold and miserable right now. I’m shivering and wondering why I ever liked the rain, I sit as still as a statue because something tells me this will make me feel better. Out of the window people have given up on pretending about the rain, they tread through ankle length water, taking off their shoes in order to do this.

 A construction crew comes into the matatu. I can tell because they are all wearing those construction hats. They all take their seats and begin to talk. I should have listened but I had something to read and decided to do that again. Currently I am reading the last book by Douglas Adams, a book published posthumously (he wrote the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and is one of the funniest writers I have ever read.) The section I’m on features all these articles that he wrote while he was alive. The one I’m currently on is a foreword to the last book by P.G. Wodehouse. This is another funny writer who I don’t remember actually reading but created the character Jeeves. The book being foreworded is also published posthumously. He (the dead funny guy whose book I am reading and not the dead funny guy whose book I am reading about) makes a case for the other dead funny guy being one of the best English writers. In this case English actually means from England. He says that the most common criticism is that the books are not about anything but farce,

“beauty doesn’t have to be about anything. What’s a vase about? What’s a sunset or a flower about? What, for that matter is Mozart’s twenty-third piano concerto about? It is said that all art tends towards the condition of music and music isn’t about anything unless it’s not very good music. Film music is about something.”

It keeps getting dark, well a weird kind of dark because the light in the matatu is blue and I can’t really read anymore. I put away the book and hear one of the construction workers say.

“niliambiwa france wanaweza ua mtu mara mbili.” I was told in france they can kill a person two times
“kiaje” how?
“wamuuue alafu waue maiti” they kill him and then they kill his corpse.

Unfortunately the matatu kicks us out and I don’t hear where this is going. I am however caught by the feeling that I missed out on a lot of interesting conversational banter by reading dead writers write about deader writers. Even though both streams seem to have the theme of death not being permanent or at least have the element of two levels of death in them.

We are dropped off at Kona , which is the stage just before the junction. There is a big advert for KFC right in front of me otherwise I was lost, I have no idea where we had been for most of the journey and I am understandably relieved to getting off at somewhere I know. The sunlight has been leached by the showers and it’s already dark though it’s only 6:30. Twilight is with us and I find it strange that almost exactly ten months ago I was in a place where I could take a picture like this

the time on the phone is the important thing.

There’s a lady selling maize and she’s not just selling roast maize, she’s selling boiled maize too. I’m so cold that this is all I need right now. I buy one cob for 20 bob, already imagining the soft way they squish against  my teeth and the salt that I will spread liberally over them in order to bring out the taste that I miss so much. It warms me that maize as I walk towards the junction.

By the time I get there is no light left and it has started raining again. I begin walking down the road to where I can get a matatu. I’m not sure what this road is called but it’s the one shaped like a valley, you have to descend to a place where (at least for anyone living in the pancake city that’s Nairobi) feels like you got to hell and then you rise again. One side of the road is completely free and the other is in a gridlock.

It’s raining again but it’s that soft rain, the kind that seems more like mist and settles on your hair instead of falling on it. The maize has warmed me enough that I’m in a good mood. It’s dark except for all the lights of all the cars. I’m wearing my glasses so the rain has wet them too. When it rains on your spectacles this strange thing happens where it feels like you are living in a dream, your vision becomes cloudy and foggy. The line of cars stretches as far back as I can see first of all lined down the descent then all the way to the top of the hill. The lights are red and yellow and make a contrast against the darkness of the night, the lights catch the rain drops and if it wasn’t for that it would have been easy to forget that it’s still raining, the rain is that soft. Because of the drops of water on my glasses the lights are also broken up when they reach them into tiny diamond like puddles. The cars are in so much traffic they nearly stop and its quiet as I walk there, peacefully quiet like the sea. There is only the sound of the puddles of water I step on and the muted engines of the cars.

As I begin to walk up the hill it starts to rain hard. Now I can see the puddles of water flow down it and the water is muddy and brown. It’s impossible to avoid it and I feel my trousers getting wet. I can feel my socks get muddy and my shoes become pools as I walk on up. The rain this time doesn’t stop. I continue to increase its tempo until its flooding from the sky again. I have to cross the road when at last I get to that bridge and I do it by jumping and other foolhardy measures. There’s too much water on my glasses for me to properly see, now any light is too refracted to be of help and I take them off.  I go to wait at the matatu stage and it rains harder and harder. No umbrella, no matatu, no hope. A guy comes to wait and he looks like he’s just come from basketball practice. He’s in shorts and sleeveless shirts and doesn’t seem to know its raining. I know this is the only thing I can do too. We wait at that stage. We wait until it stops raining. We wait until Mr. basketball decides to walk. We wait until I’m not shivering anymore. Then a matatu comes and I walk into it.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

the spirit

I’ve been spending a lot of time reading the constitution lately. This is because I only ever read it once back in 2010 (the copy I had was one of those that they printed out in the newspaper.) I wanted it to pass because I had been thinking a lot about national unity and symbols of it. The constitution we had before had been passed at the Second Lancaster House conference. The paws of the British were all over it a fact that can be gleaned from the place in which it was written. After this constitution was passed amendments ran amok all over it. The turn-cloak amendment introduced when Jaramogi wanted to switch parties. This is basically an amendment that stated that when one politician switches parties to a different one than the one they won a seat in parliament as a member of then they automatically lose that seat. The age of presidency amendment moving it up to 35 because there were people who feared the charisma of Tom Mboya. And a lot of others that I can’t remember right now but were occasioned by roadside pronouncements and whims of our first two presidents.

 I wanted the new one to pass. It didn’t matter that it was the bastard child of impunity and violence. It mattered that it had a story behind it. I watched a lot of American TV and read a lot of their politics  and a contemporary example works for why this phenomenon convinced me we needed a new constitution. America has just gone through the Sandy Hook disaster where a 20 year old criminal shot up a school killing 20 children and 6 adults. Something that could be traced back to their lax gun laws. The reason they have such lax gun laws is because their constitution gives them the right to bear arms. This right is treated as a fundamental right by most of them and it’s very easy to rebuff any attempts at bringing tougher gun laws by pointing at the constitution and saying that this is an attack on it(this is of course a very simplified version of why they can’t get tougher gun laws passed.) now, why would people in the year 2013 care what some old, white men, most of them slave-owners and racists(the constitution originally counted blacks as 3/5s of a man) back in the year 1787 thought. There is no conceivable way that their challenges are the same as the ones we face. They could never have contemplated the extreme threats to privacy we now have, they would not have imagined in their wildest dreams that there could be such a thing as nuclear war or how planes let alone drones would change the world. But there’s a story behind it and that story is one of triumph over adversity. It reaches down to the pit of their stomachs because they feel like they fought for and earned that thing. It is a symbol of national unity. Without having read our constitution I knew I wanted it to pass. I knew that there was a story behind it and since a lot of our national myth is still being created I felt that the passing of this would be a chapter, an important chapter in the crafting of that national myth. Imagine a generation of people who can remember having a say in what laws would govern them. A generation that needed faith restored in something and at this point this is all that generation had. The blood and the tears could have been for something if we got that new constitution that we were supposed to have 100 days into NARC rule.

Well, it passed and then I never read it again. Now I’m in law school so I need to read it, I dedicate some time when I’m stuck in traffic every week to read it. Its tedious, it can be boring but it can also be inspiring. The section on the bill of rights is amazing. I haven’t seen such an expansive bill of rights ever (though we can’t bear arms.) A reading of it shows that the writers took into consideration our African culture, the sections on the environment clearly denote that a lot of our cultures believed we were holding land in trust for the countless yet to come. The endless provisions for ethnic consideration when appointing people to national posts shows that history, and especially the way history has been marked with tribalism has been considered. There are the arcanities, for instance in particular votes in the senate each county has only one vote. It happens because of nominated senators that some counties have more than one senator so they cast a delegation vote. The head of the delegation which is the elected senator can decide whether or not to listen to the other senator. I enjoy these things, then I get so tired I sleep on the matatu until I get to school.

Still though more needs to be done to bring the constitution to life. It needs to be more than just words on paper until it begins to affect people’s lives it’s just words. Until the point where a court holds someone responsible for violating another’s rights(especially if that someone does it with the backing of a government agency) then the bill of rights lies dead and flat on that piece of paper. I’m not advocating for more rights violations which are necessary in order that someone complains about them I’m just happy when there are more constitutionally related cases in the courts. Especially if it’s the Supreme Court.

A few weeks ago Raila brought a presidential petition to the Supreme Court. Apart from the issues of rigging that he was alleging there were other things that really did need to be decided. Chief among them was whether rejected votes should be taken into account when working out the percentage of votes that a candidate has won by. The IEBC had taken them into account, about 300,000 of them and this made Uhuru’s votes past the 50% mark less than 10,000 votes. The court ruled that they(rejected votes) shouldn’t be counted and this means that his number of votes past that mark are suddenly a lot more. The allegations made by Raila came to about 7,000 votes if I remember correctly which if they had been proved right would have been enough to claw Uhuru back below 50% automatically precipitating a run off, however since the court had decided that rejected votes should not have been taken into account this means that they needed to prove a lot more than 7,000 votes I’m not sure how many but a lot more. Therefore even if the court had believed these allegations the rigging was still not substantially in conflict with the principles enshrined in the constitution. Understand while reading that that I am still a law student with absolutely no bullshit-meter which means that whenever one of those lawyers talked I was convinced of what they said. When another talked I was convinced of that too and Ping-Pong it went. While our supreme court justices in comparison have been practicing, legislating and studying for more years collectively than I could hope to live (unless I was an old testament patriarch.) which is my way of saying this is an extremely amateur interpretation of what actually happened. That said I still like it. It’s the kind of logic that I find irresistible,  assuming the truth of the people you’re talking to and basing your arguments on their anchors.

This is my way of saying that I approved of the fact of the petition. I liked seeing the process playing out in front of me and I can’t wait until they release the full texts of their decision because they were given a lot to grapple with and there are few things I like less than intelligent people trying to come to a conclusion given conflicting evidence. More and more cases of this nature, at this dizzying height(the only way I could explain the magnitude of what this means to lawyers is-imagine the world cup only happens once in your life. Well this was that once.) are needed. Law is one of those places where words matter and matter a lot. Words can change things, not in an abstract way where they make us feel more empathy and become more human but in a way we can see. They can save lives, they can condemn them. The words written in the laws that come from parliament are just the first step. The hopelessly verbose words that come out of judgements, stitched through with precedent and consideration of statute and the balance of probabilities on which evidence is weighed are also important. Especially given the wide number of interpretations that the words in the constitution allow.

Also anything that brings the wonder that is Kethi Kilonzo into my living room for hours and hours is a good thing. There was a moment, she had already thoroughly impressed me at this point, when one of the other lawyers stood up as she talked. “He is my senior but he must sit down” she said this with a hint of steel in her voice and then looked down. Her body was moving in that dancy kind of way that it did the whole time, if body language and tone could be moulded into one thing, that one thing on her would be described as communicating in a  sing-song way. She said this and the man had to sit down and at that point I would have proposed. Anything that brings her into my living room is worth the watch.

Monday, April 1, 2013

number four (K2) and tribalism

I wrote this some time back but because of recent events I decided not to post it till right now. Until we were sure and until this damn IEBC ink got washed off my nail, whichever came first.

I’m not sure what year it was probably 2007. I had gone to one of the national stadiums where I and my countrymen had gathered to watch a spectacle. To see what would turn out to be the death of something whose name had been inextricably linked with that of our country since its inception.

As soon as I got off the matatu my stomach began rumbling. I could hear the sound in my throat the way you sometimes do and as I did and  it exploded outwards. It went down to my asshole and I needed to shit. It wasn’t one of those ones that you can kill with a well-placed fart. This one felt wet. I knew that if I did fart it would slide out of me slimy, stinky and wet so I clamped shut like a boy trying to avoid seeing an accident. As soon as I was shown where my delegation was sitting I looked for the toilet. At those early hours of the morning it was already unusable. There seemed to be shit and pee everywhere. There was no proper place to squat and I still had some of the modesty that I have lost in the intervening years. The loss of that modesty means today I would have looked for some likely bushes. It also means that I can use this episode as an introduction to what could be a semi-serious blog post.

What was happening was a KANU national delegate’s conference. What would turn out to be the last KANU delegate’s conference. People had flocked in from across the country because it was time to decide the fate of this party. It was facing an existential crisis that came in the form of alliances and coalitions and which had its beginnings in the multi-party system of government that was introduced in the country back in 1992. A crisis that ran through President Moi’s backstabbing of all his loyal and not-so-loyal stalwarts and choosing of a man to run for president that most of us had never heard of. A man who just five years earlier couldn’t win a seat of parliarment in his home town, a man who has shown what it means to learn, change and grow more than anyone I can think of except Daenerys from Game of Thrones. The last time that multipartyism threatened KANU was in 1967 when another Odinga decided that the rule of another Kenyatta was not the best thing for the country. The time before that was when KADU was formed because most of Kenya’s smaller tribes were scared of the political domination of the Kikuyu and the Luo who were the main of KANU.

At the end of the day (I don’t know how I got so far with my ruminary issues) Mr Uhuru Kenyatta got up to speak. And he gave a speech. It was long, it was sweeping in narrative, it was filled with details and given in the same eloquence anyone who has ever heard him speak is aware of. He convinced me of two things that day, that KANU should not be disbanded and that he would be president of this country one day.

Last year I was thinking about what Kibaki meant to me as apresident and what his legacy meant to Kenya as a country. In my mind it will never be thika road. What I remember from him is the dark days of 2008 when after he stole an election Kenya nearly burned to the ground. I laid the blame for this squarely on his feet. You see there has never been a question in my mind about whether or not he rigged that election. I always believed he did and could never understand that there were people who didn’t just see it. I didn’t even blame him for rigging because that’s how African politics goes but I did blame him for the bumbling ineffectual way in which he did it. I also blamed him for the tribalism that I found in myself, the assumption that I made that all kikuyus believed that it wasn’t rigged and my subsequent silence on the issue when discussing it with them.

I think now that I blamed him far too much. Before the election I was taking to my cousin, 7 years old. She was asked
“Who do you want to win?”
“Because I’m Luo” with the most duh!!!! Shrug of her shoulders I had ever seen.

Her parents had never told her this but somehow she picked it up. At family gatherings people spoke about politics the person they supported was never far from this talk. However a lot of this talk was done in Luo and she doesn’t really understand it. But still it soaked through. Seven short years and she had come to understand that fact of Kenyan political life that’s as indelible as IEBC ink. It’s all tribal. People blame tribalism on a lot of things, they blame institutions, they say they get disillusioned about the world, they state their experience with members of the other tribe and use it as evidence and proof that they aren’t tribal just logical. She’s 7 and never had any of those experiences, she has no idea what cynicism is. She grew up in Nairobi, one of the most multicultural places you can grow up in. we told her mother what she had said and she was shocked too, she was surprised that this would be what her daughter was saying since just a few years ago she didn’t even know what tribe she was trying on different identities the way children love to do. Still something had happened.

This is why I began questioning all the blame that I laid on Kibaki’s feet for the awakening of my tribalism. It’s still mostly latent and a lot of it is subconscious but if it’s there in her I am sure its there in me. It’s strange because this is as tolerant as my family has ever been, I have kikuyu cousins and in-laws. I have been to their funerals and weddings and dowry ceremonies. She has too but even now there is still something that lingers. A part of us that is influenced by all the things our parents told us, a part of us that can pick up on the mood of a party and know which way to lean. A part of us that leads to the demographic breakdown of results that we got.

I remember hearing about Mutahi Ngunyi’s tyranny of numbers I remember hearing anger about it. People were pissed off with his reasoning and questioned his logic, but has anyone ever been so vindicated? I saw an fb update that said “spotted outside nation building, Mutahi Ngunyi telling random people when they will die.” For those who don’t know what this is, mutahi got a breakdown of voter registration from the IEBC, he broke this down into ethnic groups and using this was able to predict the outcome of the presidential election. Luos and Kambas would vote for Raila and Kalonzo, kikuyu’s and kalenjins for Uhuru and Ruto. This is basically what he predicted that people would vote on completely tribal lines. You know what happened? People voted on tribal lines.

It’s a scary thought that a country so literate and seemingly empowered made a decision based on where they were born and not on the issues. It’s scary for me to start to consider how tribally motivated my decision was because I always tried not to be. I tried so hard and even with all that. All the Kikuyu flings and best friends it was still so easy for me to go and make the choice that Mutahi predicted I would. I have no idea what we can do with tribalism. It’s an institutional disease this much I know. The institution most affected by it is the family. I believe that cultural cohesion is an important first step, so go ahead and intermarry, do it more and more. Dilute the tribal blood, leave your children with more than one identity. Let them have conflicting narratives about who they are and who they should support battle for power in their heads. Let them be children of not just one great African culture but two.

Maybe the cities will drive this out given enough time, but my cousin is city born and bred and a vestige remains. Maybe this is what I should blame Kibaki for not the unconscious tribalism that our parents taught us but the ugly, matter of fact one that the last ten years left us with. As soon as Uhuru was confirmed as president he called on religious and spiritual leaders to help us heal the wounds that come after such an electoral process. This would be an unimaginable sentiment to have back in 2002. Democracy didn’t divide us then it united us. And this is what I blame Kibaki for more than anything else, he took a country more united and optimistic than anywhere in the world and in 5 short years he divided us to the point that we killed each other. As a child growing up in Nairobi I never had sentiments like the one my cousin expressed. So I blame my family for making her tribalist but I blame Kibaki for bringing it to the surface, for making it something obvious and expected.

And finally to my president. Number four is the affectionate nickname he wears in my mind that and K2. Congratulations. I never knew you were such a good politician, winning this election in the first round no less shows me that you are a man who knows how to get things done. I am as impressed by you today as I was on the day I watched you speak about KANU. I wish you the best of luck in your tenure as president, may it bring peace and prosperity to all of us. I read somewhere that the soul of a politician is perpetually dissatisfied, that in his own way he is a wanderer who can never be truly content, I truly hope that being president quietens your soul, that it give you a sense of peace and satisfaction.  A lot of us are happy for you right now I want you to find it in yourself to be happy too.

Here’s a toast to number four.