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from the May 2013 issue

The Wretched of Uhuru

After Uhuru, a new scramble began. A race for wealth and riches. As one member of parliament who cared about the country’s future put it: with Uhuru had come, sadly, a new contest for lucre. In an ordinary race, runners start together from a single spot. But this mad scramble for riches did not keep to the rules. When this contest began, some runners were already well ahead of others. Gathered at the front were the few who had benefited from colonial rule. In return for helping the Colonizer keep their fellow Africans down, they had been rewarded. Those who say “One who dances on the home-ground is very well looked after” aren’t mistaken.  These ”dancers” were the first in line to explain away the emerging class divisions. Their voices rang out in the streets, in villages, and even in government offices: “Equality is a dream. Human beings can’t be equal. There must be the short and the tall; the fat, the thin. There must be rich and poor.” 

These harebrained views predisposed the people to make peace with their own wretchedness. They accepted the idea that they were destined to be poor. It was like this in the village of Gituge. Here, indeed, misery’s enclosure grew broader with each daybreak. Gituge was in a part of the country where no cash crops could thrive. The land’s character and soil could support neither coffee nor pyrethrum, tobacco, sugarcane or tea. The small farmers of Gituge—all of whom were terribly poor—grew only what they could eat. Beans, maize, plantains, and potatoes.

It was in these difficult environs that Riuki was born and raised. Though his real name was Muriuki, it was quickly shortened, affectionately, to “Riuki.” People grew so used to calling him “Riuki” that the full name was thoroughly, irretrievably, forgotten. Riukui was well-liked by other boys his age. He was pure of spirit, capable and lively, and (in a place where soccer is beloved) he was steady on the field. But it was in the classroom that his talents shone most brightly. Riuki sailed through his exams at Ugene Mission School, passing every test with the very highest marks. Father M’Arache, the mathematics teacher, awarded him the victor’s prize: a wristwatch.

The peak of scholarly achievement in those days was admission to Makerere University. Riuki set his sights on that bright summit (for the university sat atop one of Kampala’s hills) and, in the end, he reached it. When he got to Makarere, Riuki became the hero of Gituge. No student before him had ever gone so far.

Riuki’s father was a mechanic. He made a living repairing cars in the district capital, Ugene, three kilometers or so from the village of Gituge. Many young people from the villages left school for Ugene, where they got petty work waiting tables in the bars and eating-houses. But Riuki was already set against following that road—it ended in poverty’s maw. Riuki’s father was an out-and-out drunk who squandered his earnings on beer. As they say (and it’s no lie), “The brewer savages all a drinker’s wealth.” Magaju had no clue about parental duty. He couldn’t even pay Riuki’s school fees. It was Magaju’s older brother Mwiraria and his wife who took on that responsibility. Childless themselves, Mwiraria and his wife took care of Riuki as if he were their own. And Riuki treated his uncle’s wife like a second mother. They loved each other deeply.


While away at university, Riuki often daydreamed about what he’d do when he had a job. First, he’d spend the whole of his first paycheck on gifts for his two mothers. He would buy them gifts as good and great as the kindness and love they had lavished on him. This vision buoyed him. It made his schoolwork as easy as a game.

As it is when waiting for the sunrise: “not yet . . . not yet . . .” and then, suddenly, “it’s come.” Riuki completed his studies and graduated with a BSc. in math. In those days, there was no shortage of work for people with degrees. Riuki found a job right after graduation. He was taken on by the government as a financial officer in the district capital.   

Riuki believed in the saying: “A promise is a debt.” And he had vowed to show his mothers how grateful he was for all they’d done, for helping him, for encouraging his studies. Though he hadn’t told anyone about his promise, Riuki knew the time had come to fulfill it. For a while, he wondered what gifts would be right. Eventually, he decided. The moment he got his pay, he sat down and made a budget. Next, he went to the shops, where he purchased: two heavy blankets, four big cooking pots, four lesos, and two dozen fancy china plates. His mothers, Riuki thought, would share these gifts evenly between them. He hired a taxi to take the presents to the village.

At home, Riuki found only his father’s wife, his first mother. His other mother, Bi. Mwiraria, had gone out for firewood. “Well, OK, then, Mama,” he said. “I’m going back to work. When your mate comes back, send her presents over. Give her: one blanket, two lesos, two cooking pots, and one set of fancy plates.” And he climbed into the taxi that had brought him.  “Yes, all right, my dear,” his mother replied. “May God look after you.” The taxi took off.

Because Riuki trusted his first mother, he saw no reason to make certain that her sister-in-law, his second mother, had received her gifts. He went on with his work. Every morning, he walked to his office in town. Riuki liked his job, and he carried it out with energy and joy. 


Two days passed. On his way home from work on the third day, Riuki ran into his second mother as she came from the river, where she had gone for water. Riuki felt kindly toward her. Poor Bi. Mwiraria didn’t have a child. She was tasa, barren—a terrible curse in a village like Gituge. She had no choice but to do all the chores herself. Other women Bi. Mwiraria’s age had children they could send to fetch some water, gather firewood, pick vegetables from the gardens, or buy matches at the shops. His second mother had no one.

Riuki greeted her cheerfully. “Ma, how are you?”

“I’m well, my darling,” she said. “How are things at work?”

“Good, Ma. Fine,” he replied. “I’m happy at my job.”

“That’s good news. I’m so happy to hear it.”

“Ma, you know what?”

“Tell me, darling.”

“A few years from now, this burden—having to carry water on your back, all the way from the river!  It’s going to be lifted from you. I’ll do whatever it takes so that the people of our village can get water from a pipe.”

“It’s lucky for us that one of our own children has the government’s ear,” Bi. Mwiraria said. “Make them understand our troubles. Sometimes I feel they’ve completely forgotten our village. It’s as if we’ve been left to drown in poverty. Remember those fruits of Uhuru we were promised? Where are they?”

“Well,” Riuiki said, “maybe someone else got them. But, even so, Ma, we can’t lose heart. I’m hopeful that we’ll get help soon. Poverty isn’t forever, and it’s not a question of fate. It can be overcome. Development and progress are the medicine we need,” he explained. “If we can initiate some projects—say, one that would bring piped water to where the people are—poverty will vanish.”

Bi. Mwiraria studied Riuki silently for a moment. She could see how passionate he was about this question of “development.”  When he was a student, Riuki had decried the betrayal of people’s dreams for Uhuru. In those days, he blamed the country’s leaders for busily lining their own pockets while they closed their eyes to the people’s suffering. It was as if, he’d say, they’d sought political office not for the betterment of all, but to propel themselves into the upper classes. That member of parliament who’ d decried the greed that came in Uhuru’s wake, Bi. Mwiraria thought, what he said was true. Eventually she returned to the conversation and said, “We’ll keep praying for you, darling. Your success is our success. You’re the lamp of this village. If you light the way, we’ll come out from this wretched dark, we will.”  

As if considering something, Riuki hesitated a moment. Then he said, “What did you think of the presents, Ma?” 

She was surprised. “Presents? What presents?”

“The presents I brought for you,” Riuki said again.

There was silence for a while, then, sounds erupted from the top of a nearby tree. Boughs shook. Dead leaves rustled and fell. Something dropped to the ground with a startling thud.

“A snake!” Bi. Mwiraria exclaimed.

Riuki found a stick and approached the snake, but, as he got closer, he realized that it was dead. “Maybe some bird caught it,” he said, turning the body about.

“It’s possible. Actually, I did see a hawk near here on my way to the river. It hunted well, but the quarry slipped away. Bad luck,” Bi. Mwiraria said.

Riuki looked up. “There’s the hawk!” he said, pointing. “Why doesn’t it come down to fetch its kill?”

“He can’t come down if we’re here,” Bi. Mwiraria said. “He’ll come when we’re gone.”

“Let’s forget about the hawk and its hunt,” Riuki said. “The other day, I brought you both some gifts. I left yours with Mama, so she could bring them to you. When I came, you were out for kindling. I thought she’d brought them already.”

A cloud of confusion spread across his second mother’s face. “Maybe . . . maybe she forgot,” she said in a thin voice. She didn’t credit her own words, but she didn’t know what else to say. Why hadn’t she received her gifts?

In a voice that showed his sadness, Riuki said, “She forgot!? How could a person forget a thing like that? I’ll go ask her right now.” He turned and headed home in quick, agitated steps, while Bi. Mwiraria followed behind in her own slow way. When Riuki arrived, he didn’t even stop first at his little house to set down his heavy briefcase. He went straight to the kitchen shed where his mother was cooking. He called out, pushed the door open, and went inside. There, he was greeted by a cloud of smoke. He coughed and his eyes watered.  

“Forgive me, sweetheart. This firewood’s too damp,” his first mother said.

“How can you bear to be inside like this?”

“I’m used to it,” she said. “Cooking and smoke are friends.” She blew on the fire until it caught. The smoke thinned and finally disappeared. She pushed the stool at her side toward Riuki so that he could sit. Riuki sat and then began to speak. “Those gifts... Mama. What did you do with them?”

“I’ve not sent them over yet, sweetheart. I’ve had so much work to do I haven’t had the chance. But I’ll get them to her. Don’t worry yourself about it.”

“Your two houses are no further apart than a mouth and a nose. You haven’t found the time to go? That makes no sense. It’s not as if you have to undertake some enormous journey.”

“I’ll take the gifts to their rightful owner,” she repeated.

Riuki considered bringing the gifts over to his second mother’s house himself, but he thought better of it. If he did that, his first mother might suspect that he, her own child, didn’t trust her.

“How are you getting on at work?” she asked. She wanted to change the subject.

“Just fine. No problems at all. I’m getting along with my superiors as well as those below me. And I want to use my position to fight poverty in this place.”

“You sound like a politician,” she said.

“Politicians say they want to help, but they just want people’s votes. I truly have the will. And,” Riuki said firmly, “I want no votes whatsoever.”

“Well, you certainly have a lot of education. And you’ve got a big, important job. Talk to those government officials and they’ll listen. Our village has really fallen behind. We don’t even have a primary school.”

“We’ll keep pushing forward. We can’t keep living like this.”

They talked for a while, then Riuki took his leave. As he entered his own little house, he heard his second mother calling out at his first mother’s kitchen. Had she gone to get the gifts herself? As Riuki listened in amazement, a fierce exchanged erupted. It sounded like a quarrel.

“Do you think I’m a child you can just lie to? Tell the truth! You want everything for yourself. Everything!” his mother’s visitor shouted.

“I told you, I forgot,” her co-wife said. “If you don’t want to believe it...”

“Heh! Listen to you! When did you become a frail forgetful woman? This isn’t about forgetting. It’s pure greed. Don’t think that just because I’ve not said anything till now, I don’t know what’s going on!” Bi. Mwiraria shouted.

“If I’m so selfish, what have you come here for?  Go some other place, where people care about you.”

Heated words continued to fly from Bi. Mwiraria’s mouth. “All I can see is that you’re different. Since Riuki got a job, you’ve been avoiding me. It’s as if you want to own him. If you see me talking with him, you make such a face! What’s your problem?”

Riuki’s mother’s voice was hateful, angry. “Riuki is my son. What’s it got to do with you, how I am with him? What are you after, when you follow him around?”

Now Bi. Mwiraria put both hands on her hips like a dancer about to leap into the fray. “Oh, now he’s your son, huh? All these years, while we were raising him together and making sure he finished school, he was ours. Now he’s yours because he’s getting a paycheck? What hypocrisy!” she shouted. “Such wickedness! What incomparable greed!”

Our child? What, did we both give birth to him? Riuki came out from right here, from my womb. You know what they say. ‘If you don’t have a baby of your own, go find a rock to hold.’” These last words shot out like a poisoned arrow, and they hit their mark.

Bi. Mwiraria leapt into the air as if she’d been stung by a scorpion. She grabbed Riuki’s mother with all her strength, raised her up and dropped her to the ground. Riuki’s two mothers coiled and writhed together. They slapped each other and tore at each other’s clothes. The struggle went on and on until Riuki finally intervened. When they’d quieted down a little, he took Bi. Mwiraria by the hand and led her to her house. He regretted having left the presents with his first mother. Oh, he should have distributed them  himself. It pained him that these gifts, which he’d intended as signs of love and closeness, had brought ill-will and rupture.  

From that day on, Riuki’s two mothers were so estranged that neither one would even have lit the other’s fire.  Even so, Riuki didn’t take their enmity very seriously. He bought Bi. Mwiraria gifts like those he’d intended for her in the first place. He continued to visit her at home and he talked with her as he used to. Even when he sensed that Bi. Mwiraria’s heart was turning, souring from hatred for his first mother, he still loved her. What Riuki couldn’t see was that the festering wound in his second mother’s heart was so deep and ached so much that it couldn’t ever heal. The poison that had shot out of his first mother’s mouth the day of the quarrel—that unforgettable day—had struck her very badly. The cruel reminder of her barrenness, the very bitterest blow, was impossible to forgive.

A problem Riuki had thought no bigger than an anthill had quickly become a mountain. Indeed. A mountain of enmity that kept his two mothers irrevocably apart. Riuki’s father and uncle tried to reconcile their wives, but nothing they did worked. Riuki couldn’t understand it. He just couldn’t believe that one day’s argument could conclusively wipe away so many years of friendship. 


 At that time, Riuki and his old teacher, Father M’Arache, occasionally met up in town. They talked about the deepening rift in the country between the rich and the poor.  Clearly, this rift was the result of ineffective leadership. M’Arache liked to describe the country’s politics as “the politics of the belly.” People didn’t enter politics to serve the people, but rather to fill their bellies and get fat on the nation’s wealth. Eventually, Riuki told Father M’Arache about what was going on between his two mothers. He asked M’Arache to intervene, to put out the flames of discord which were burning still. M’Arache promised that he would do his best.

Riuki was from the village, but he lacked village sense. He dismissed a lot of things that happened there. He didn’t have the time to follow up, find out what was really going on. In many ways, the villagers baffled him. But what surprised him the most was this habit of fighting very bitterly over things that seemed so small. If a cow broke out of its enclosure and trampled a neighbor’s crops, hatred sprang up between the cattle owner and the farmer. If children argued or fought with the neighbors, their parents became enemies. It seemed to Riuki that the villagers sought every possible reason to generate mistrust. What had happened between Riuki’s two mothers was ordinary, a daily occurrence in the village. But it was pure foolishness as far as Riuki was concerned. And he refused point blank to have anything to do with such a stupid conflict.

Riuki had never lived in the village or interacted with its residents long enough to be able to fully understand. That is, to understand their psychology, their ways of doing things, what they thought about life. He’d spent his childhood studying and playing soccer. And, later, when boys of his generation went to Ugene for petty work to scrounge up money to buy cigarettes, Riuki sought refuge in his books.

In the evenings, when boys his age trawled the alleyways looking to meet girls, Riuki lit an oil lamp in his room and read like a person starved for education. And his was a peculiar hunger, because the more Riuki ate, the hungrier he got. He completed secondary school. He was so perfectly prepared for the final exam that taking it was as easy as gulping a thin porridge. He scored the victor’s crown, and the road to Makareke opened before him. After heading for Kampala, Riuki was seen in the village more rarely than Ramadhan rice.  During the long vacations, he worked in Nairobi or Kampala. His visits home lasted only a few days.  

When he graduated and started work in the district capital, he decided to live in his little wooden house in the village. He slept at home, but he raced to work each morning. He thought he would do this during the first year, saving up his money so that, in the following year, he could buy a house in town. In short, Riuki hadn’t breathed the village air enough to be a true person of the place. Things like witchcraft, curses, jealous schemes and plans—all of which preoccupied the villagers—were as far from Riuki’s being as the earth is from the sky.

At this time, foremost in Riuki’s mind was his plan for combating poverty. He believed that poverty was the root cause of ignorance, of witchcraft, of needless enmity, of the thoroughgoing misery and so many other woes that kept the villagers stuck exactly where they were. He thought that alleviating the villagers’ unrelenting poverty could really change their lives.

He’d become an evangelist for the religion of education and development. Only its light, he believed, could dispel the darkness of ignorance and want. But his religion had a powerful enemy. That enemy was witchcraft.  It was true that the village of Gituge had no cash crops, no good source of wealth. No one from this village could possibly compete in the scramble for wealth and riches that had started up after Independence.  Even so, without witchcraft, poverty’s roots would not have been as deep. There were lots of stories about well-meaning, hard-working villagers who’d been felled by it.  Just recently, a well-known cattle owner had died in mysterious circumstances. One night, he suddenly cried out that he was being strangled by his enemies. His wife lit a lamp and tried to wake him, thinking that her husband was having a bad dream. But he didn’t stop. He rolled about on the bed, foaming at the mouth—and in no time at all, he was gone. That was the end of Marete, top man at Ugene’s slaughtering grounds.

Even schoolchildren weren’t spared the problem of witchcraft. Those few who did well on tests or completed any kind of course were especially vulnerable to attack. Some of them went mad. Others were laid to waste by strange illnesses. Their bellies swelled, and eventually they died.

Though Riuki heard about all of these things, they remained distant from him. It was as if these events took place in some other country instead of right there in Gituge. He never thought for a moment that it might happen to him.  But, as they say, “not yet . . . not yet . . .” then, suddenly, “it’s come.” Bi. Mwiraria didn’t recover from the terrible disease that had infected her during that quarrel for the gifts. She joined the witches’ army. And in the depths of her heart she swore that her fellow mother—the woman who had given birth to Riuki, whom she, Bi. Mwiraria, had helped so much to raise—couldn’t go on reaping all Riuki’s wealth for herself alone. She said under her breath: “If there’s getting to be done, let’s each of us get something; but if we are to lose, let’s lose everything, together.” Right then, as Bi. Mwiraria spoke, Riuki lost his mind.

Soon after, he showed up in the village without any clothing, carrying office files and babbling. “This Government Official. From this Hard-Governed Government. This Government Official! From now on He’ll work from Home. This Government Official! He’ll stay right by the People, oh! The People of the Village!”   

Children hooted and threw stones. At the sight of him, girls and women ran. From that day on, Riuki never went home again. He spent all day in the sun, wandering and babbling along the paths and in the fields. Even in the cold and rain, Riuki stayed outdoors. And he lived in this manner for five months. In the sixth month, the witches’ army claimed its victory: Riuki died at last.

Father M’Arache—Riuki’s old mathematics teacher—led the mourners in prayer at the gravesite. He rebuked the villagers for “following Satan’s lead.” In murdering Riuki, he told them, they’d put out the very lamp that might have led them from poverty and ignorance to the light of better days. This was his final judgment: “You’re held in poverty’s thrall. Until you change your views and ways, you will stay right here, like this, in the wretched dark.”  

© Mwenda Mbatiah. By arrangement with the author.  Translation © 2013 by N. S. Koenings. All rights reserved.

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