usonga

My father always bought me meat when he was drunk and stumbled home and gave it to my mother to cook.

One day in Loresho my father carried his grief in his palms, stumbled into the living room and gave it to the women and he said mon, ywaguru, women, cry.

I will write about it one day.

Today, however, begging the jiko to stay up with me, I stare at the paper the cook left on your grass, grass on which leaves were classified as dirt, grass that once harboured the pride of a working woman with a personal hairdresser, grass that always made it clear how fortunate anybody was that it agreed to play mattress for afternoon naps.

And I think how love is a difficult thing to translate; that is the way to forgive teachers who made everyone laugh at us because our people mourn as if in theatre.

Maybe some of us are unable to access grief except through the poetry of others.

Like:

Coke madiaba okan madhre kendo.

Like:

Nyaminwa ma ne wa thoth kodo,

Nyaminwa ma nyakawach ga adiera,

Nyaminwa ma ka ne ber to ber to ka ne rach to rach.

Like:

An to aonge wach. Weauru.

Like.

Tho oknyal chietho. Two emichietho.

Like:

Ero wathi rumo.

Today, the road to your home feels like it is being made in real time by a child who has pinched a piece of brown plasticine and is rolling it on a green table and singing a song everybody knows but nobody remembers from where. As her plasticine grows longer and longer and longer, the road grows longer and longer and longer, as if for it too, the anticipation for your grass has been replaced by the fear of coming face to face with the reality of your no-longer-ness.

I know you are gone because for a moment, I thought myself in a 3D movie theatre as I watched the bottle you-know-who threw diving as if in slow motion onto your grass and if there is anything that could have made you get up, it would be this.

Sadness has never found me but I am also very good at running so far ahead of it that it is nightfall and the road is impossible to tell apart from the farm and the fireflies are drunk dancing to the funeral night party songs only they can hear from this far away and there is an infant lake here somewhere and today is my last chance to find it and sadness has forgotten that it was me he was looking for.

My father- he declares war on my silence but this thing- the way it eats everyone who left my womb and they stay quiet makes me think that woven into my bones is a computer code running into eternity that commands my being to be mute.

 

*Psst I am soft launching a Patreon for paying readers, in which I will duplicate okasungora pieces (because open access). If you are capable, sign up to support my work: https://www.patreon.com/posts/26822808 Thanks.

 

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turkana

I always thought that hopping onto a Land Cruiser was cool but Turkana taught me that if you are of a certain height hopping is the only way to get onto a Land Cruiser. Driving at 100km/h on rough road for two hours in a convoy led and trailed by security personnel clad in camo into a semi desert felt like a movie, like what happens after two blonde haired gangs in Texas comprising men who look exactly the same have a shootout and one group drives off. A strange fact about semi deserts is that no matter what ills you read about them in Geography textbooks they look stunning. Imagine it: sand, sunshine, vegetation the colour of glowing charcoal, shrubs, palm-looking trees on the banks of absent seasonal rivers, hills and large large tracts of nothing else.  A wonderful discovery is fish comes out of Lake Turkana already seasoned by God. You need to be a really bad cook (me) to mess tilapia up in general, but messing up Lake Turkana fish would require a superpower, and I feel if you have super powers you should put them into something useful instead of ruining fish. On a different note, in my culture, you are not allowed to actively demolish someone’s house when they die, but you are not allowed to refurbish and maintain it either. It needs to come down on its own. I have been thinking about this because sometimes when I go to places managed by the National Museums of Kenya, I wonder if my culture inspired their values. The house in which the Kapenguria 6 were detained during their stay in Lodwar looks like something forgotten.

*Psst I am soft launching a Patreon for paying readers, in which I will duplicate okasungora pieces (because open access). If you are capable, sign up to support my work: https://www.patreon.com/posts/24977370. Thanks

kereita

cw: mental unwellness

In many ways, Kereita is indeed God flexing. With little research, and with myself on a petri dish, I can come up with scientific proof that forests are therapeutic. A tree can approach your soul, hold its neck and breathe into the back of its ear until your soul sighs, lets go of its burdens and collapses onto the tree’s shoulders.

Unfortunately, on this visit to Kereita, I had an anxiety attack which debilitated me. It had been a while since I got that wired for that long and I had started to trust that I could once again seduce the universe with my laughter and leap into it and that it would catch me very time.

How do you come from feeling like your spirits are as high as those bodies on a zipline and then feel like they are down in the valley below within 2 seconds?

It felt like every cell in my brain was battling another using the bow and arrow I was learning to work in archery. Even when the symptoms were screaming, I beat myself up for being weak not sick and for missing out because of it.

To blame you rather than itself is in part the nature of this lonely illness, a demon invisible sometimes even to its unwilling captor. In part, however, blaming yourself is a consequence of the fact that you are in more active control of your treatment than with other illnesses. When you are in charge of your wellbeing through constant yoga and positive affirmations and deep breaths, then an attack that overwhelms you feels like personal failure. As you fight and fight and fight, it is difficult to know when to look your armed brain cells in the eye, put your own bow and arrow down, raise your hands in surrender and ride the attack.

What I did ride was a horse which was good to me this time. I joke about how as a grownup I understand the darkness that drove people in rock music videos we watched with Ethel in high school on Sundays to wear black lipstick. I think when I got on Mzungu and pushed him faster and faster, it felt very dangerous but I finally understood the obsession seemingly disturbed black-leather-jacketed 20-somethings in music videos had with speeding motorbikes. I made a friend though, who got me a beautiful blue stone, and if that is all I got from the day, then it is sufficient.

*Psst I am soft launching a Patreon for paying readers, in which I will duplicate okasungora pieces (because open access). If you are capable, sign up to support my work: https://www.patreon.com/posts/24465446. Thanks 🙂

castle

There may be no God, but the world has little heavens. Castle Lodge is the kind of place that God would reserve for only his favourite people. There is not a moment you are more aware of this than when you are riding uphill on a horse onto a grassy clearing which overlooks a rich forest. Butterflies that cleared surrounding leaves as larvae and left them looking like a sieve scatter in the mischievous way of children who know they have done something wrong but are not apologetic. For background music, birds sing like you imagine they do in poems and a waterfall hums as every moment new waters, only the ones at the very top, win the privilege of being kissed by the sun. Above the forest, sun beams escape through holes in the clouds which glow as if they are hiding a secret. Saladin, the horse, sensed earlier that I am a timid person and stopped following my orders, but needs no convincing to ride into this beauty. My therapist said that while abuse is never the victim’s fault, manipulative people can sense a timid energy, which is partly why some women are repeatedly victims of domestic violence or sexual assault. When Saladin refuses to listen to me, I go into my brain in that way that is difficult to escape. The waterfall is mesmerising, because when I stare at it for long and then look at the world, the trees and the rocks and the soil shift as if in a collective Mexican wave. I like it- that the earth too in its perfection can harbor an eerie darkness. A brain that is always sprinting and always glancing behind to scan for enemies is a difficult thing to live in, but when you have some money, a waterfall and a dear friend there are ways to run away even from your brain.

*Psst I am soft launching a Patreon for paying readers, in which I will duplicate okasungora pieces (because open access). If you are capable, sign up to support me: https://www.patreon.com/posts/castle-23971360 . Thanks 🙂

Lisa

20170416_193350.jpg

Lisa. That is what I am planning to name my walking stick when I am 83. It sounds like something you would name a really tame pet that is not a dog. I’d call a bunny Lisa. Or a mouse. Little harmless pets can be called Lisa. A bird that can fit in your palm. Lisa. A kitten with ears too large for its body size. Lisa.

I am thinking about an 83-year-old-me for a very cliche reason. I am imagining what memories a version of me leaning on a cane with a badass inscription will treasure. I will be standing next to an anthill in the idgaf way of old women and looking into the orangeness of a sunless sky at sunset. My eyes will have forgiven me for whatever I did to them to send them on a go-slow at age 14. The long-sightedness of old age will marry the shortsightedness of my youth to allow me to create perfect vision and allow me to stare at the breathtaking horizon. My eyes will be glassy and an imaginary camera will zoom in on them. 83-year-old me will fade out and a youthful version of me will take the stage.

I want to enjoy this year. I know it’s never that serious and I really want to chill out and be in the present and so on and so forth. But in school My Life happened to me. At the beginning of the semester, My Life and I were on a running track bent over the starting line doing our on-your-magoros and set-your-makinyas and by the time the bullet went off my life had finished two laps and I spent the whole semester trying to catch up.

This year, I want to wake up at 11a.m. on Saturday and wear my I’m-allergic-to-Mondays top and black sweatpants and go to My Life’s apartment and knock. I will ask ML (My Life and I will be on nickname basis this year) if she wants to come out to brunch. And ML and I will hold hands on the roadside. And ML will stop to take a photo of a purple butterfly for the butterfly blog she has started.

When we reach the bakery, we will order muffins and regular tea. Which is different from Masala tea (yes, I’m trying to announce I go to Java now). And I’ll ask ML, “Hey, what are you up to today?” And she’ll say, “I don’t know. We’ll see what comes up.” And we can talk and talk and at 5p.m. I can look at the clock and say, “Oh, it’s already 5p.m.” But not the oh-it’s already-5-p.m. for college. The one that makes you count how many hours, minutes and seconds you have before your deadline and which friend’s birthday party you are not going to make it to even though you are very sorry. No. This oh-it’s-already-5p.m. is a happy one in which I marvel at my friendship with ML and how easily we can spend hours together doing nothing.

I read a book (Salt Roads, Nalo Hopkinson) in which one character seeks silence so much that she wishes her travel partner would breathe more quietly and paces her own breathing because she can hear her ribs. The sand sounds super loud to her as the wind blows it. But she finds so much silence within herself that she can hear other people thinking. For example, if you walk by her, she can hear you say “I need to buy meat” if that’s what you are thinking.

I hope that Saturday afternoons with ML will allow myself that silence so I hear my||self think. As a youthful version of me fades and 83-year-old me leaning on Lisa comes back into focus, I hope that both past me and present me will have enjoyed that peace that only someone who can listen to themselves think can afford.

 

Photo credit: https://www.instagram.com/momentsintime123/

 

MATATU WOMEN: GOING IT ALONE IN NAIROBI

Monica’s life seems lonely to me. Not in the way that standing at the airport alone, after your lover says goodbye, is lonely. It is lonely in the pleasurable way that reading a book is. Every weekday at four a.m., Monica gets up. With only Nairobi’s cold morning breeze for company, she leaves her house and heads to Nyayo Estate Gate B: a twenty minute walk. In June’s cold, it helps that her uniform includes a long sleeved red shirt, with a stripe at the collar the colour of the midday sky. She pushes the door and walks up two steps into the 33-seater matatu which will be her home for the next nineteen hours.

Matatus are public vehicles in Kenya that range in size from huge buses to 14-seater Nissan vans. Some are owned by individuals while many are owned by groups called Savings and Credit Co-operative groups (SACCOs). In these groups, people pool together money to buy the vehicles and then share the profits. Each matatu is staffed by two people: a driver and a conductor, like Monica, whose job is to collect fares and to let people into and out of the matatu. Monica’s matatu is one of hundreds of thousands of matatus in the country. She transports 33 people nearly every hour, sometimes meeting the same people she’d transported earlier that day.

Monica settles down into a chair next to the door as the matatu joins Outer Ring Road, then Jogoo Road and then enters the city centre. She then stands up and collects fares, swaying to the rhythm of the moving matatu, steadying herself against the chairs. Bus companies like Citi Hoppa have tried to make these transactions cashless. There was the Beba Card, on to which you could load money and then swipe it like a debit card. Lipa na M-pesa is another alternative, a mobile money transfer through which you could send money to the bus’ account. But in a city that has been nicknamed Nairoberry – a city whose conmen and daylight robbers often have me wishing I had eyes all around my head – people are always wary about having their money swindled.  Monica, for instance, was prompted to leave the hairdressing industry and find a more lucrative job when thieves took away everything in her house, including her hairdressing equipment. So people prefer to give the cash to Monica, whose life they walk into and out of, rather than use a card whose inner workings they do not understand.

If people get off the matatu, Monica hops off too, trying to convince more people to get on with a “Hamsini Town, Hamsini Town”. The more people she carries, the more money she earns. She has a quota which she has to give her employer and then any money left over is her own. She takes home about 2000 shillings – 20 dollars – nearly half the monthly rent of many houses in her neighborhood. Sometimes, though, when she hops out of the matatu, she collects more dust than she does passengers.

***

Nairobians pride themselves on knowing which matatu to take in which part of town. When stranded, you ask matatu conductors like Monica. You cannot trust Google because, just last summer (amidst complaints about misnamed Nairobi avenues), they offered you an enthusiastic “18 minutes to Africa” when you tried to get around in Kenya. They finally added Nairobi’s matatu system to their maps, taking pains to make the chaos that is the matatu industry legible, but many people would still prefer to make their own brains maps. The blue, red and white boxes painted on the side of Monica’s matatu resemble a crossword, and are to me a symbol of how difficult it is finding your way around Nairobi.

Women venturing into the routes served by the Embassava sacco will hesitate to ask directions from male conductors, even with the same Embassava badge that Monica wears. Last year, videos flooded Kenya’s social media spaces, in which women who were deemed scantily dressed, were stripped of their clothes by matatu touts. People believed the perpetrators to be Embassava conductors. But Monica says she was present and it was a jealous ex boyfriend, not matatu touts, who stripped this woman of her clothes. An Embassava bus passing in the background of the video recording implicated them, she says. This may still not exonerate matatu touts altogether, since many other videos went viral of the same thing happening to other women.

Women drivers and conductors have always been rare in the matatu industry. Even now, for a lot of Nairobians, there is something avant-garde about a picture of a woman walking down the aisle, asking you to pay up. Like they are in a gallery, Nairobians still stop to aah and ooh at this picture. Legend has it that the first woman in the matatu industry, a John the Baptist who paved the way for other women, was called Senorita. She was single, like many of the women I have met working in matatus.

Nowadays, the matatu industry is a sponge for women looking to join the working class. Since the dusk of Mwai Kibaki’s presidency, there has been an increase in Al Shabaab attacks on Nairobi matatus. At bus stops, before people get into the various matatus, touts frisk them using a metal detector. Women conductors are better placed to frisk other women. And more and more women want to find out how the maroon uniforms would look on them, that the former Transport Minister Michuki made all conductors wear in 2004. Some women who work with Monica are students who work part time so they can pay their school fees.

Monica puts away some of her money every day so she can pay school fees for her own seven children, many of whom are away at boarding school. She has only the younger ones left and, returning home at midnight and leaving again at four a.m. each day, she barely sees them during her work week. She might as well be alone in the house, because they are asleep when she is awake.

***

Another woman I meet works the 105 Nairobi – Kikuyu matatu route that takes you to Alliance Girls’ High School, one of the best high schools in Kenya. At Alliance Girls’ where she delivers these young women, students are encouraged to work hard, because who would marry you if you did not work hard?

Women in Nairobi are taught to look at alone-ness as something to be sneered at. The trajectory of a girl’s life – even one who, by society’s standards of smartness, has excelled and has made it by a quota system to the highest level of secondary school – is always aimed towards combating alone-ness and singlehood. Teachers, male and female, want to know who will marry you. Peers, male and female, mock you about singing along to Beyonce’s ‘Single Ladies’ and remind you Beyonce has a man at home. Perhaps, even now, as I tell you the stories of Monica and Rachel, I am highlighting their alone-ness because in my eyes it is so exotic. But Monica’s daughters know that a widow can raise seven children alone. Monica makes the life of a woman alone seductive in the way that bachelorhood has been made seductive.  She earns her own money. She decides what to do with it.

Rachel, the owner of Hotsteppa, the matatu that won the East Africa Motorshow, has mastered aloneness so much that she wanes in the national conversation about her matatu. National newspapers report her friend Abel Ouma, the man who encouraged her to buy a matatu, as the actual owner of the matatu. Rachel manages the matatu from behind the curtains, like the director of a play. She hides her identity for her own security, fearing that she may endanger her life like the director of Rasasi investment, who was shot in October. When there is a problem, she lets her friend deal with the other men on the ground because “he can threaten them”.

Matatus are Nairobi looking itself in the mirror. Men threaten. Women are threatened. Men are the only ones who can be in control. This may be why for women to survive in the matatu industry, they have to act as they would in a play, complete with costumes like maroon trousers that are traditionally considered male. Rachel has employed a manager to play her double. He rides on the matatu all day and collects the money after every trip. That way, she says, employees cannot lie to her that they got arrested and had to pay fines, or got punctures. The employees in turn call this middle-man Battery, because he links them to her so that they cannot swindle her.

If Monica’s life is about working with hundreds of people all day, Rachel’s is about controlling hundreds of people each day, as, on another scale, is Mary Mwangi’s, who owns over a hundred buses. Rachel uses phone calls from Battery as her morning alarm. And she spends the day putting out fires: punctures, policemen, accidents.

Rachel left her job in South Sudan due to insecurity. With her savings, and a lot of pleading because she did not have a payslip, she secured a loan from Toyota, a company which is eager to sell its new ‘Helio’ brand for use as matatus. She spent two and a half months designing the matatu: installing the three TV sets, a music system, deciding to put the word Hotsteppa in the interior – not words like Arsenal or Manchester United which could be divisive – and picking the purple and yellow theme of the matatu. She spent her evenings on Youtube, watching MTV’s Pimp My Ride.

Despite now having a team of employees she likes, Rachel has had to sack some along the way. The first driver got into an accident. The second driver tried to stipulate that he bring his own conductor to work with, so, she said, they could conspire over their stories and swindle her. Drivers, who sometimes have celebrity status, are not bothered about her matatu and ruin it by speeding.  They want to complete many journeys and maximise on their earnings while the matatu is still new. On the side of Monica’s matatu is painted a red aeroplane, nose raised proudly as it perches into the air.  It reminds me of the speed with which the drivers, nicknamed pilots, operate the matatus.

Rachel has had to abandon many of her other exploits and spends most of her days monitoring all her employees, from backstage. When Rachel first got her matatu, men called ‘hangers’ would lean out of the door of the matatu and pretend to fall and hurt themselves. Then, they would go to the police and ask that Rachel compensate them. Both Rachel and Monica are frustrated by policemen. Rachel has a lawyer friend who advises her on her rights and, to the surprise of other people, her matatu is barely ever confiscated by the police.

Rachel refused to have her matatu all yellow, because she felt so many other matatus in Nairobi were yellow. She also made a decision to pay salaries per day rather than commissions, to ensure her employees didn’t ruin her matatu by trying to fit in extra trips each day. She is anxious because this may mean that they will not work as hard.

Maybe Nairobi itself teaches a sense of competition that can grow unhealthy. In a society where only about half of the students who finish primary school go on to graduate from high school, it is perhaps not surprising that a relative advised Rachel against hiring a woman because the men would get jealous. She says: “[In] this industry you’ll be hurting the lady [and] they even call a police”. Since matatu men are seen as not having succeeded in life, all successful women, however subtle, threaten them.  They try to assert their space within the industry by putting down women who try to succeed within it. Sometimes, even male passengers refuse to board matatus driven by women. Yet women who venture into the industry are also popular. The policemen, who frustrate both Monica and Rachel by accusing them of things which they have to pay for, actually let women drivers go more easily than they do men. Rachel says, “Ladies are favorites even if she makes a mistake”. When Rachel gave a woman driver the matatu for a weekend, she attracted more customers, and Hotsteppa got significant social media clout. Rachel will consider hiring her full time when she gets a new matatu.

Mary Mwangi, the owner of the Double M, a fleet of buses that traverses Nairobi, employs more women than other fleets do. This may be because women are more likely to give fellow women a chance. Thanks to Michuki’s laws, there are also now laws protecting workers from sudden dismissal when working for bus fleets.

Many people tried to scare Rachel when she decided to enter the industry, but both Rachel and Monica would recommend their jobs to anybody in a heartbeat. Monica insists on maintaining her 3-4 hour sleeping schedule, protesting the suggestion that her children could help her once they finish high school; insisting that they must go to college instead. In the morning, she returns home, removes her uniform and takes a bath.

Reblogged from Commonwealth Writers forum

 

sharing imperfections

I was once reading Alexis Teyie’s work, which I love and hunt down every now and then because she makes really beautiful poetry in really silent corners. In her piece, she talked about how an artist’s reluctance to share work is actually pride (and she of course put it more glamorously). And I thought that was a bold statement but I saw all the ways that it was true for a lot of us, not just artists. The need to present your paintings, your Powerpoint slides, your Math homework to people only when it is perfect, can be proud, because it is shying away (to put it mildly), from sharing our imperfections, which is why the anti-social media crusaders are always coming for us. Think about it. Social media has us, quite literally, showing only our pretty sides, and always making the standards of this pretty more and more absurd.

I grew up on a lot of awful quotes attributed unfairly to either Einstein or Maya Angelou or Thomas Jefferson or one of the writers of the Old Testament. And I do not remember all of them but a major theme was how you should never think of yourself as having achieved perfection, that you should always push yourself to be better, that you should always be finding new goals. Our Math teachers would call on these wahenga quotes before beating you for scoring 98%, or scoring a 100% but not showing your working. And they would say that they did not want you to think that “you had arrived”.

One of the main reasons I could not sustain my Catholicism, or my religion, was that ironically I felt such pressure always to be perfect. I curled up in fear of breaking one commandment or the other, which would paralyse my efforts to just live and breathe and appreciate the sun’s yellow. And while the crazy high standards were not the reason I stayed irreligious, I felt a little sad that I did not find a space to cut myself slack in the place that should most cut you slack.

And I understand why there is a need for such a school of thought, of course, that you as a human being should always be aiming to do better. However, the older I get the more I fear that we preach striving for perfection without preaching acknowledging how far we have come. I feel like stopping to say “Wow, Ivy, you actually achieved this” is not only an underappreciated means of staying calm before confronting new storms, but it is actually seen as a form of being conceited. And that is an awful attitude for individuals but also for society in general. If we do not think the things we have done worthy of sharing with society, then can you imagine how many creative policies have been trashed that would have helped us solve the education debacle, for instance, or how many entrepreneurial ideas had the light shut out of them when the person who conceived them went to bed at night thinking they were not good enough, that they could be more perfect as we were taught to assume, and can you imagine how many songs will never reach our ears because of the same attempts at perfection. Just look at the things that come up around the time #CreativeKE is trending and imagine a world where everybody hides those parts of themselves.

put your art out

So it is pride, not sharing our work, it is prideful to think that I am capable of perfection and thus should only produce perfect work. But it is also a pride that sometimes I have little control over, that I cannot battle because I learned it so well.

I guess then we cannot talk about this without talking about the need to be kind, to offer criticism only honestly and only courteously, to colleagues, to classmates, to strangers on the Internet. Personally, I feel a little death inside when I read some of my earlier work. It was not the best, but it took up space confidently, aware of its imperfection but elbowing out all other literature to claim its space, and sometimes I fear that all of my training has improved the architecture of my pieces. I know what to do, but that same training threatens everyday to take away the soul of these pieces, like if the god I believed in had forgotten to breathe air into the man he made out of soil.

I once watched a TED talk about (forgive the massive paraphrase about to happen here) how people in the past believed that a demon possessed artists– that is why they could paint or write, or make music. It really calmed me down, because it then suggested that the days I could not create were not my fault, but my demon’s, like if he is feeling lazy is that my fault? It reminded me of how in high school after exams the teachers would feel lazy to come to class, and we would know in our hearts that we were the ones negatively affected and that we would not finish the syllabus on time to master it and be tested on it eventually. But in this aleluyia moment of the teachers’ truancy, we would go to the field and frolick in the sun and have conversations and make memories that I still keep in a crystal ball in my chest which warms my heart on days when the rainbow is enuf. This is one of the ways I show perfection the middle finger.

And I am always anxious about how so scared we are that we do not talk about imperfection and normalise it. Like what would it be like if Chimamanda had genius moments like Americanah and still shared work that she did not think was beautiful (if you dare imagine that she creates any unbeautiful work)? Our silence on the greyer sides of otherwise glossy matters is remarkable, like how nobody talks about how women experience pain during sex yet 30% of women report it, or how 49% of women experience incontinence after childbirth.  But there is something about that silence, about not talking about all of the scary scary scary things we know we must face when we get out of bed in the morning.

And, perhaps Okasungora readers will identify with some of these anxieties when pursuing your own passions, but sometimes it takes my everything to let anyone but myself into the haunted house that is my art, to not overthink it, to hit “Share”.