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from the May 2013 issue

Poor Grandpa!

I never wanted to remember at all, let alone write about, what transpired when I took a walk with Grandpa to the sprawling Kariobangi slum area, that part of the slum known as Korogocho. I didn’t want to look back again, to reopen an old wound. An open sore for which there is no remedy, one that has refused to improve to a scar. An open sore. A huge open sore. It oozes with pus and discomfort, and constantly fills me with fright. However, my friends have urged me to write in detail about this matter.  Ever since I delivered a bouncing beautiful baby boy and named him after Grandpa Mayende, there has been no end to my friends’ nagging, and now I am compelled to give in. I now succumb to their persuasion, although deep down inside I feel it is a betrayal of Grandpa to tell this story.

It is now more than twenty years since these things happened. And because I didn’t want to remember, I reckoned that it would be better to contemplate the future rather than forever brooding over the past. Let bygones be bygones. That is the mentality with which I buried the incident, consoling myself that it didn’t happen. But today I am determined to swallow bitter medicine, in order to give an account of what actually happened.

Now where do I begin? Do I begin with the beginning or with the middle? And where is the beginning? What is the beginning? Pardon me for being somewhat confused. It is not my wish. You have to remember, dear reader, I am writing this story rather reluctantly. And those animals called inspiration and writerly strategies that I studied in college have no meaning to me now as I recall tragedy. Anyhow, let me begin at the beginning. First, is my origin. Perhaps. Let me begin with origin.

There was someone who said autobiographical works shouldn’t be evaluated on the basis of whether they bear truth or falsehood. They are best viewed as works of art. In other words, when I recount what happened, you, dear reader, shouldn’t be concerned with whether it is true or false. What counts is whether I succeed or fail to create a work of art called a short story or long short story, whatever that means. For me, representing the truth as best as I can counts more. There are those who may contend that because I am writing about an incident that occurred twenty years ago, I am too far removed in terms of time, space, and emotion from the incident to represent reality as it really was.  They would contend that my story is my interpretation corrupted by my adult experience. To them, I am seeing my childhood through an adult lens.  So you will hear them claiming I am writing about things not as they really were, but as I wish they should have been. If what I am writing is a pack of lies, what is the point of reading? These guys are liars. I don’t want to be a liar like them.

It isn’t a lie that my mum, Khadija Hassan, has Somali ancestry. Her parents were Somali nationals who relocated to Western Kenya in the 1960s to do business. They established a retail and wholesale shop at Chebukaka trading center along the Chwele-Kimilili road, in Bungoma District. Mum grew up within a Bukusu cultural  milieu; she associated with Bukusu kids, went  to school with them, drew water from the river with them, played hide-and-seek with them, dived into the river and ponds with them and sang traditional, even circumcision songs with them. Although Mum spoke the Somali language with her parents, her tongue articulated Bukusu sounds with amazing native competence. If you heard her speak without seeing her curly hair, narrow face, and elongated nose, you would have thought that she was a little Bukusu child speaking. Even her parents were compelled to speak some smattering of Bukusu (with a Somali accent) for business purposes. Now who will say what I am saying here about my mum is false? Isn’t it true that my mum was a Somali child raised in social surroundings dominated by Bukusu lore? Go now to Chebukaka and ask the residents if what I am saying is true or false.

How Mum and Dad met is a guarded secret, which it would be disrespectful to divulge. Yet it is no secret that they met in the Chebukaka surroundings. My dad’s home—or, better still let me say, poor Grandpa’s home—wasn’t too far from the Chebukaka trading center. On the backside, his five acres of land border Chebukaka Girls High School. On the front his land borders the Chebukaka trading center, where there are several small shops and one big shop belonging to Mum’s parents. In short, I am not being creative by saying my double ancestry sprung up in this context: Somali ancestry on the maternal side and Bukusu ancestry on the paternal side.

From the beginning it never bothered me, this being both Somali and Bukusu, although it caused some people quite a bit of astonishment. Intermarriage between Somali and other ethnic groups in Kenya is a rarity.  Mum’s people seldom cross their ethnic frontier in search of a marriage mate. I think our Indian brothers are the same too whereby intermarriage with other people is as rare as the presence of righteous politicians.

I must confess that what you have heard so far isn’t the beginning of my story. My mixed ancestry is at the core of this incident which I had resolved never to recall or recount. I have no intention of chronicling in great detail how relatives on both sides resisted or endorsed my parents’ union. The point is that theirs was one marriage in a million and I am the product of that union. And as I recall there were quite cordial relations between the families of my Grandpa Mayende and Grandpa Abdi.

Let me now talk about the fateful day. Dad was working in Nairobi. His diligence had  enabled him to rise in the ranks in the police force to inspector. He worked at Kasarani Police Station, not far from Moi International Sports Center Kasarani. We lived in the police quarters on the third floor, where, if you stood in the living room and looked out the window to the East, you would see Dandora, Lucky  Summer, and Kariobangi Estates. Our paternal and maternal grandparents used to come to visit us often and their visits were trouble-free. Indeed, for me my happiest moments in life were when the grandmas or grandpas of either side came to visit. Moreover, I would be overjoyed whenever we went to Chebukaka with my parents to visit with the car full of gifts for both sides of my parents’ families.

Grandpa Mayende didn’t like visiting Nairobi too often since it meant being torn away from his beloved livestock.  He would come only after relentless persuasion. But when whatever happened happened, he had come against his wishes.  I was quite young, perhaps ten. I remember clearly that he came because of age-related illness. I hear he didn’t really want to come. But Dad prevailed upon him to get into our Toyota Corolla so he could be brought to Nairobi for treatment at a better hospital. Grandpa’s resistance amounted to nothing.

As I have mentioned, visits from grandparents from both Dad’s and Mum’s side were always a source of great joy to me. Grandpa arrived at the police quarters apartment, where a room was secured for him next to mine. Dad would rise early every day to take him to the hospital. After about three weeks, I heard Grandpa say he was getting better and was eager to return to Chebukaka, to tend his livestock.  That Grandpa was getting better was evidenced by the laughter, the smiles, and the anecdotes with which he filled our house, and the songs he sang, including “Kila Siku, Kila Siku Kariobangi.”  I found the folktales he told, which included the tales of Simbi, Sela and Mwambu, Kasuku, Nakhatundi, Wanakhamuna and ogres, riveting.

Now as I look back I must confess my mixed ancestry bequeathed me tremendous cultural wealth. I imbibed the wisdom of both the Somali and Bukusu oral traditions from my grandparents who had disparate roots. Who is like me? And during Grandpa’s last visit was pure joy.

I remember that Saturday as if it was yesterday, the Saturday that has stuck on the body of my memory like yesterday’s grievous wound pulsating with pain. I wasn’t in kindergarten, just in case someone will claim I am making things up, lying to my readers. I had graduated from kindergarten and was in standard five in primary school. If you doubt, let me remind you that I think Mum was expecting my brother, Kundu Kukali, my immediate follower. How can you say this is merely the figment of my imagination, an attempt to say not how things were but how I would have wished things had been?

It was during the midday sun. It was on the eve of Grandpa Mayende’s expected return to Chebukaka. Grandpa, who had not been in good health for a long time, appeared extremely cheerful.  His health was improving. I am not the one who told him we could go to Kariobangi for a walk. It was his own choice, made in his joyous mood. He said he had recovered and he didn’t want to return to Chebukaka without seeing for himself Kariobangi, a slum area he had only heard about in a  record. “Kila Siku, Kila Siku Kariobangi” was one of the songs capturing the antics and gimmicks of the dwellers of Kariobangi. As I said earlier, Grandpa sang that song a number of times during his visit with us. Because it was a Saturday, when we didn’t have to go to school, I had a great opportunity to walk with Grandpa. We left Mum knitting a sweater for my unborn follower.  Dad was still at work.

“This is the place they call Kariobangi,” I told Grandpa as soon as we arrived.

We entered Kariobangi without much ado. I didn’t marvel at the mass of humanity, people of diverse backgrounds from inside and outside Kenya; what struck me was the squalor in which they lived. The poverty that engulfed them made them one ethnic group, that of the poor. I must confess, I am only stating now to realize the oneness in poverty that pervaded the slum, after weighing matters on adult scales, an undertaking that I then had neither the capacity nor the will to consider as a child. What I encountered then was black sticky mud that stuck on the footpaths, which were replete with waste, an odd mixture of acrid and unpleasant smells. The memory of the unbearable rottenness, reeking so intensely it could blow apart one’s nose, still lingers in my mind until now. I now see myself walking on those narrow slippery paths, Grandpa holding my hand in his, my small hand drowning in the ocean of his big hand.

“This is the side of Kariobangi called Korogocho,” I told Grandpa enthusiastically.

Yes, we are in the heart of the Kariobangi slum area where shanties, shacks, and hovels lean on one another and exchange pleasantries between themselves.  Those standing straight did so by God’s grace. Otherwise, these ramshackle structures ordinarily drop whenever there is some strong wind or rainstorm. Or perhaps even the wind from someone’s whistling might bring them down. These are mud-walled dwellings, rusted tin roofs strewn with mold and rickety doors standing in the doorway like millet stalks waiting to fall any time soon. This is Kariobangi for you, the slum consisting of one ethnic group, the have-nots.

“Salala! Why can’t they return to their homes so they can lead more meaningful lives?” Grandpa said as we passed by a throng of women frying and selling fish by the roadside.

“Where is their home?” I ask Grandpa.

“The country.”

“So the city can’t be home to someone?”

“City life is quite disheartening. I thought Uhuru—independence—in Kenya would bring about advantage to all. People of all tribal backgrounds. I didn’t realize that in the long run, Kenya doesn’t have more than forty different tribes as they claim; there are only two tribes, the poor and the rich, period. ”

Grandpa’s philosophizing was above and beyond my comprehension. Yet he wasn’t wrong in his assessment of human life, of the lives of Kenyans. Whenever he conversed with Mum and Dad, he would mention words like Uhuru, tribe, corruption, bribery, words that I couldn’t understand but that I knew to be true. These must truly be real, or if they are not quite real then they must be a reflection of certain aspects of the reality of our lives.

Then we passed by women selling dry chapati, doughnuts, mangoes, garlic, papayas, tangerine, and groundnuts. The sellers had a hard time chasing away the cloud of flies hankering to feast on their wares. The buyers and sellers were the same ethnic group, the poor.

We passed a part of Kariobangi that had kids with hair like mine or like my mum’s. Slender kids like myself with narrow long noses like mine. Most of them were somewhat light-skinned, like me. Perhaps only two or three were as black as soot on the pot of one of my Chebukaka grandmas, Mayende’s wife. I also saw some women in veils and long gowns that completely covered their bodies. No doubt, they too were part of the one ethnic group of the poor of Korogocho, the poor of Kariobangi. The women who looked like my mum trained their eyes on me as if I was a miracle. Then they began pointing at me or at Grandpa. They fixed eyes full of suspicion upon us.  I held tenaciously onto Grandpa’s hand with both hands. I heard noises. The women who looked like my mum began running this way and that way, some of them screaming.  What’s going on?

“Grandpa, what’s wrong?” I asked as I looked into Grandpa’s face. His face was composed.

“I don’t know.”

“Why are they pointing at us?”

“Perhaps they think you resemble their children,” he said, then remained silent.

I looked at his face and noticed for the first time that he was nervous and a particle of sweat was forming at the tip of his nose. I had never seen Grandpa in that state before. Grandpa made another step forward as I clung to his hand as if my future depended on it. The women who looked like my mum stood in our way and surrounded us. The noise continued. You could hear now Swahili, now Somali, now English, now wordless groaning, and roaring.

“Where did you get a Somali child?” one women as hefty as a rhinoceros said angrily.

“This is my grandchild,” I heard Grandpa answer as they continued to heckle and yell at him.

“Wee! Waacha! Impossible! How can you have a Somali grandchild? Ee?”

“Don’t try to fool us here.”

“This is my Grandpa,” I tried defending him, but who would listen to me?

“He is a witch, he has bewitched the child to make her call him Grandpa.”

“Set him ablaze!”

“He steals children.”

“Necklace him.”

One overconfident woman slapped Grandpa on the cheek. I saw how Grandpa’s  legs shook and I heard a shiver in his voice.  Now you understand, dear reader, why I hate remembering what happened? I pounced on that woman suddenly—I couldn’t help it—my teeth met with the flesh of the woman’s leg, maybe. My teeth almost dropped out because of the fury with which they sank in the human flesh. There was pandemonium all around—screaming, whistling.  Now a huge crowd of people surrounded us, men and women, children and adults.

There was so much confusion that I had no clue how I got caught by several Somali hands and whisked away, as I tried helplessly to resist—kicking, and shoving, and wiggling. In the twinkling of an eye, I found myself in a dingy shack with the characteristic aroma of my people of Somali ancestry. I screamed, I wept until the wells of my tears dried up. My screams were muffled by the commotion outside…

Because I was detained in that dark shack I never saw with my own eyes what happened outside. I didn’t see what became of Grandpa. If there are still those who discount the veracity of my account, those who claim it is a product of my fertile imagination, let them take note that I wouldn’t have feared or hesitated representing what happened outside the walls of the shack where I was detained if I was writing fiction. Moreover, even if I had witnessed what happened I would never bring myself to describe it in detail in the fashion of creative writers.  I hate the way they relish presenting gory details of tragedy, suffering, and agony. They, however, can take solace in the fact that theirs are works of fiction, with imagined, unrealistic, or unreal elements. But as for me the incident involving Grandpa at Korogocho is a true event that was a huge story in the news. Newsmen reaped a story to share with their audiences. The cameraman, who captured the incident as it neared its climax, won a journalism award for informing the public.

As you know I am not a fiction writer or a journalist. I am but a victim with feelings, and, trying to recall, to recount this episode, contrary to the advice of counselors, is far from therapeutic; it is opening the wound, exacerbating an already terrible condition. I save you, dear reader, the details of what happened outside the prison in which “Good Samaritans” had locked me, Good Samaritans who were bent on separating me from Grandpa, who they termed a witch. Simply put, they inflicted mob justice upon him, killing him and burning his body.

I feel a tear in my eye. If I weep today, twenty years after the event, don’t think me  crazy. It is a legitimate feeling. I weep for oh, poor Grandpa. I hear my baby named after Grandpa Mayende crying also. I must stop here. I must comfort my baby. I must console myself now that I have opened the wound again.

Nevertheless, I dedicate this story to my late poor Grandpa.

© Ken Walibora. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2013 by Ken Walibora. All rights reserved.

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