It’s a Country By Nimrod Wambugu
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Skimmed Chronicles from Paedophilia:
It’s a Country
By Nimrod Wambugu
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George was a
likeable boy growing up in what you might call a semi-urban setting. He was
brown with a tan removed, or whatever it is you call a skin pigment dithering
between ivory and oak. If you lived in his village you referred to that
complexion as ‘bright’. He was comely of looks, average in weight and height for
a boy his age. In spirit he was cheerful, tolerant, and undemanding. He knew how
to carry himself amid adults and equally how to throw himself in the midst of
his peers - thus neither your village boy saint nor your offensive brat.
If you would have stolen the chance to, unbeknown, follow George as he took the long route from his primary school, you may have witnessed him hurl a stone or two at Mama Kimani’s beehive, then fly. What a naughty boy! You thought. But if you had kept pace with him you might have changed your mind on seeing him already at the rescue of helpless Mzee Gatemi, who is struggling with a donkey cart while the sneaky animal has just taken flight. George will round up the beast at no solicitation from the old man. The boy’s clothes were not as dirty or tattered as were those of the true boy-rogue whose aggressive playing knows neither day nor dusk. But you observed that they weren’t as immaculate as those of the effeminate boy whose mother is proud, yet internally concerned about her son’s socialising aptitude. This was George’s boyhood, a bit of truancy and reform.
God’s good graces carried this son of the world, shielding him from the nastiest vagaries of life, but not entirely blinding him from the realities of their existence. He would rise at dawn; whip himself up some breakfast, whatever it was that would be available, then grab his knitted bag and run to school. At times he would falter to oversleep, thus delegating the task of waking him to his single father.
“Son!” The old man would shout while tapping George’s leg with a stick. “Is today another sports day?” At which the boy would spring to life, yawning and blinking repeatedly. He would later get himself ready for school, leaving his father to prepare to take his herd of a hundred sheep and three dairy cows to graze. Mzee Kimenye was his name and forty his age, the latter fact not being much evident, his eternal outdoor life in the grazing plains having instructed the weather to work its magic on a noticeably handsome face.
Sitting between the edge of Marumane forest (or what was once a forest, before raping and greed had devoured it) and a huge grassland and marsh plain; five kilometres from Nyahunyu town on the fringes of Central and Rift Valley Provinces, Ndego is an expansive and populous slum falling under the jurisdiction of Nyahunyu municipality. It may thus be viewed as an urban habitation. It consists of rusty-roofed timber shacks with earthen floors and terrible ventilation. Piped water is scarce, sewerage facilities deplorable, and poverty endemic. Any given day, semi-naked kids with runny noses and flies galore playfully scamper around eternal mounds of garbage. Narrow passageways between houses are littered with human filth. A network of trenches throughout the village flows with all manner of unimaginable muck. As for the look of the place when it rains; the sight of a man being disembowelled is more pacifying and less nauseating. Highly preventable diseases like Cholera, Marasmus, and long-forgotten conditions like Scurvy and skin-infections like Scabies, reign here. Red-haired children do not imply style or genetic traits. With only that small piece of information, these are more or less the same conditions in which George happily grew up.
Being a habitation brought about by proximity to a nearby urban centre, and with the majority of its population developing a forest-farming culture, the two aspects of urbanisation and rural life are evident. The people know each other well and the only symbol of authority is a so-called ‘Headman’, whose roles range from Judge to Executioner - up to and excluding those cases whose magnitude requires the intervention of the Nyahunyu administration. The Headman is Nyahunyu’s ‘eyes’ in Ndego, chosen by his acceptability to the slum dwellers. His presence is enforced by two shabby administration policemen, whose favourite (if not perennial) haunts, are the shady ‘herbal medicine’ dens. There is nothing ‘medicinal’ nor ‘herbal’ about these dens, and a chief obligation of the administration is to watch against their proliferation. Depending on the offence, it is not uncustomary to see a petty offender locked for several hours to a day in the Headman’s outhouse.
A Norwegian development organisation (NORAD) had made tremendous strides in establishing an all-weather road network within this slum. It had also commenced solving sanitation problems by erecting low cost concrete pit latrines with limited water systems, setting up communal water standpipes connected to the local supply network, a health facility, constructing garbage confinement zones, tapping an aquifer that works up to today, and providing other sanitation appurtenances. But that was in the eighties, before they fell out with the government and were promptly expelled - smack in the middle of their outstanding philanthropic work. Had they completed their projects, a low cost and workable water distribution and sewerage network would have been realised. Their legacy is manifest today.
In Ndego, domestic necessities are sold in portions that would baffle the Weights and Measures Board. To purchase a single day’s cooking fat at a small fraction of the legally recommended retail prices is not a wonder. Many other expendables like paraffin for the lamp or the cooking stove are obtained at minimally varied quantities and rock-bottom prices. Yet you will agree this is a slum leagues above many others strewn about larger urban centres. Thankfully, there’s electricity to the few who can afford and numerous television antennae now dot the rooflines, a mark of some esteem whichever way you consider it. At the time George was growing up, he could count a maximum of two such antennae through-out the whole expanse, and he could describe to you who it was that dug the first hole for the first electricity pole.
At this juncture, it will not be a cliché to point out that, however unhealthy, malnourished, unclothed and devoid of any aspect of so-called human decency the picture may seem, the inhabitants exude such admirable spirit and will to tackle life that you may be forgiven to think they are comfortable with this predicament.
During the seventies and eighties when the National Pencil Company was economically viable, this village’s population mainly benefited, directly and indirectly, from the subsequent timber industry in the nearby forest. The company now being dead as a dodo, the current economic upturn of the majority of the populace hangs on matters seemingly beyond their local political platform, chief of them being a policy known as the ‘Shamba system’. This policy basically allows communities living near designated forests to - along with their crops - tend to tree saplings falling within their plot boundaries. This practice is continued until it is determined (and naturally so) that at a certain age of the young trees, it is detrimental to continue crop farming. A kind of gold rush therefore rejuvenates Ndego slum during the ‘happy season’ when the government concessions part of the neighbouring Marumane forest for lumbering, thus implying availability of land for the Shamba system. These plots provide bountiful supplies of maize, beans, potatoes, peas, and several other food crops. They also infuse such redemption, that a stranger to the story behind will love the general feel-good factor of the people. And he will also not overlook the tasteless mention of the fact that it disengages a few from crime. Barring the inherent lack of transparency in the allocations, the village receives a fair share of land to till.
Over the recent years, however, anticipation of gloom has crept into the local populace as the government juggles with the tricky issue of whether or not to wholly adopt the Shamba system. Globally, environmental degradation is argued whether or not it is dire. Locally, it is dire, and we are not talking about the arguing part. Wielding much clout on environmental issues, a Prof Maratha and company understandably entertain no two-ways about the Shamba system, strongly advocating for a total ban on subsisting on erstwhile gazetted forests. On the other hand, banking on self-serving and indolent parliamentarians to devise a favourable bill about the matter is to press a button labelled, ‘Entice, Frustrate: Hie Me unto My Pauper’s Death’. To make matters worse, hundreds of acres of the land that was being used to promulgate the Shamba system were cleared for permanent allocation to individuals who boot-licked the government of the day, and majority of whom do not reside in Ndego. R.I.P., we used to know you, forest. But we digress too much.
Mzee Kimenye, George’s father, wasn’t the biological one but actually his uncle on his mother’s side. She had died from Pneumonia, leaving the responsibility of raising her child to the only closest family member who could afford to give him some education. Kimenye himself had migrated to these parts in search of employment, years back when it was the dream of a young man in the surrounding rural area to work at the National Pencil Company. He did work in their forest timber mills, got tired of the monotony, bought a cow that he used to live with in a single-room he had rented in Ndego, and which sustained him with its four-litres-a-day production. Those four litres were enough for him to make an above average slum life. In truth, they were enough to make him open a window facing the street, through which he and his friend sold their milk in small multiple quantities. This window would later be enlarged and wire-meshed, leaving a small opening for the exchange of money and other commodities, for the business gradually grew into a general goods shop.
At forty and single, the previous ten years had seen Kimenye experience a lot. From the young man in his late twenties who had lived on nothing until he got the pencil company job, to the man who lived with one cow, and later operated a ‘General goods shop.’ He was the man who once lived with a woman for three years, a woman who suddenly ran away with another man, carrying with them all his savings. He would later not let any friend close, nor speak to unmarried women beyond ‘Here’s your half-a-litre, thank you.’ At the time of adopting his nephew/son George, he had accumulated a respectable herd of sheep but never stocked his dairy cows beyond three in number. His luck with women (or lack thereof), it was whispered, made him the rich man he later became, at least in slum standards. His reputation was admirable. Much older men (there are not that many in slums) respected all his judgements. The raising of George was chiefly supported by returns from his cows and the occasional selling of sheep to the municipal slaughter house. He presently occupied his own building in the slums, which was built, as are many others in the slums, in the shape of a rectangle, one side of which was open for access to a backstreet. He had rented out five houses while the rest were his animal pens. The privilege of living in a slum is that such matters as regulations governing human and animal co-habitation hardly come into play.
George’s life after school term transformed into that of the sheep-herder. His day would start with opening the rooms in which the animals slept, then follow them as they caused all manner of havoc amid the slum streets, just like a liberated, surging and bleating mass of a hundred sheep would do. He would weather all the verbal frustrations vented by the roadside sellers who got mired up in the ensuing melee, few among who would be late in detecting the signal and hence appropriately bracing for the animal exodus. A mumbled apology here and there would calm them, as George manfully steered the mass outside the slums and into the grazing fields.
He hated the grazing plains, they were so uneventful. If he had any say in this, he told himself, he would open the forests for grazing the year through. The animals do not eat mature trees. But authority had to be respected, as he was reminded one day. He had been grazing on the edge of the forest and in a flight of fancy much aggravated by boredom, decided to sneak the animals inside. He did not suspect a feature of forest authority nearby. Later that day he would be reminded, using a good lashing with a finely-chosen forest cane, that the Divisional Forester was doing his job.
In the times the forest was open for business (unrelated to the Shamba system), mostly during the not so dry months when forest fires were unlikely to be started by mischievous characters and illegal charcoal-burners, George lived for it. As compared to the plains where he could see every animal, here the animals kept on moving and dispersing, making it irritatingly tiresome to round them up. Yet this was a most welcome bother, since the excitement generated beneath the forest canopy was exhilarating indeed. With his friend Kiama, they were accomplices in forest excursions in search of wild berries and fruits, guinea fowl eggs, buffalo spoor marks, and discovering themselves. Entering the forest was a world apart and they were devoted students of what it conspired to reveal to them.
It was a wonderful thing the lengths people went to accomplish certain things, if not to douse nascent urges. Not only were serious hormonal imbalances harmonised under the all-encompassing forest foliage, George and Kiama discovered that respectable village people were capable of engaging in unrespectable acts. Etched in their minds was an incident involving a lady who was a tenant at his father’s premises. This incident had occurred far away from the herds, when George, Kiama, and two other boys also herding in the forest, had followed the fresh claw prints of what must have been a guinea fowl. They came near a small clearing when the taller boy leading them stopped and shushed them as if he had finally seen the bird. Alas! It was not the bird, but definitely that song being enacted, the one regularly sung by drunks in the dark as they stagger amid the narrow slum passages, and which produces eye-daggers from a mother when her boy innocently sings along to it. George can get a drift once he’s given one, for he remembered, a long time before the fowl-tracking incident, being at a certain house in which two young adult men were listening to a music tape whose cover was labelled ‘Strictly adults only.’ The two men only entered the chorus, which kept talking of ‘vigorously moving your waist.’ George did not get what the excitement was all about having to move your waist vigorously.
But today he got it very well. The tall boy gave a glowing look at his colleague, and whispered clearly words to the effect of vigorously moving your waist. The two boys, being more mature than Kiama and George, seemed to enjoy the spectacle with a greater zest than their younger counterparts. They crawled closer for a perfect view, and the silence was such that they could hear proceedings.
“Careful please.” Wangeci the lady was saying and the man would grunt an affirmative.
“Careful Please!” She kept repeating while the man vigorously and purposefully moved his waist.
The tall boy among the observers was so excited, that his colleague was worried he would blow their cover and so had to keep nudging him. They keenly followed events until the vigorous process came to a halt. While the players were dressing, an agitated Wangeci introduced another terminology to George. She kept enquiring a particular from her companion, and was so intent on receiving an answer from the dodgy lad. The only word that disturbed George in this was ‘spillage.’ Again, he just couldn’t get what the fuss was all about. Wangeci and her man hurriedly left, still arguing about whether or not spillage had occurred, and most importantly, where to.
“Why would she be worried about anything spilling in her?” George later asked Kiama and the two bigger boys almost laughed to death.
Months later, Kiama would do his homework and come up with a hypothesis which they both tried, the forest canopy again providing privacy for a little self-exploration and comparison of notes. At an age in which he was allowed to be roaming the slum at dusk, George had discovered more watching television. It was habitual in Ndego to pay a few coins to watch an action movie at the sole video hall. It would cram with boys and men, not just watching, but cheering at action scenes, be it Bruce Lee snapping peoples’ necks like twigs, or David Carradine with a Machine Gun, wasting an advancing mass of Viets as the cartridges fly like a fountain and the beautiful ammunition belt ripples with purpose. Astounded silence interrupted the scenes involving vigorous waist movements. After the movie, an animated pack of males would emanate, reeking of stale sweat, shoe fumes and fart, their voices hoarse.
It was later to dawn on George that Wangeci was not a respectable lady, for it was not once or twice he saw her in the forest, each time with a different companion one of whom was the indisputable village staggering champion. Since he understood that Wangeci used to work at Nyahunyu town as a waitress, George used to wonder if she was endangering her job in those days that she used to visit the forest. To irk George more, she harboured a cat that deposited its crap everywhere, especially about his entrance. When it rained, the stinging smell would filter through and make his room uninhabitable.
But that was not a bigger worry than that she did give birth to a child who did not appear ‘normal’. The first time George saw the infant, he thought it looked delicate and smaller than the few he had seen fresh from the midwife. Two years into the life of the boy, it was clear he was not normal. He was frail in form, his neck never able to support his head, and his left eyelid incapable of completely opening. His age mates were walking and eating dirt, while he never had the energy to crawl, nor that to cry. Mzee Kimenye kept cheering Wangeci up, being his tenant and neighbour, that her boy’s energy was late to come, that he was waiting for him to take over the herd when George would enrol at secondary school. George knew this was unlikely, if not impossible, and circumstances would later prove him right. He actually knew that Wangeci put more premium on her bright-red lipstick and tight pants than to teach little Kimi his strides.
Kimi’s condition had produced an air of resignation on his mother. She gradually developed an aversion towards his medical expenses. Since her waitressing job never seemed to pay her on time, Kimenye seldom demanded milk-delivery arrears. One day, George did peek at her account in his father’s dog-eared monthly entry-book listing milk deliveries to various customers. He picked the book for the preceding month at a whim. He then started randomly picking several others, and it was no surprise that one customer, Wangeci, had settled only one month out of the two years of Kimi’s existence. His heart quietly went out to his Father.
Because of his
marks, George was enrolled at a secondary school far from his home area, and was
fortunate enough to have a father with the ability to do everything possible to
enable him to continue schooling at an institution he thought a slum bloke was
not made for. Adapting to life in this school was trying indeed. Here were kids
from big towns who spoke and looked like they had played roles in a television
commercial. At the end of a day, his jaw used to ache from struggling to speak
in a language that was not his mother-tongue, and his solitude was spent
silently reminiscing the marvels of the forest back home. But then he also saw
astonishingly beautiful girls who did not look like they would survive a day of
herding in the forest, leave alone walking a few yards inside Ndego the slum. It
could be that television was responsible, or he just couldn’t tell why the sight
of these girls made him imagine that the gift of a clean white handkerchief with
an embroidered pink flower would mesmerise them, especially when presented at a
glade, next to a singing stream, while lazing on those huge smooth stones. He
got tired of telling his schoolmates that it was true he had never lived outside
the slums, and his stories and wisdom fascinated them to no end.
“Do you guys do like we see on TV? Defecating in nylon bags and letting them fly at night? The flying toilets?” He hated such questions, knowing too well his dad had enlisted three men to dig seventy-feet for that purpose.
“If you guys have a hundred sheep, how do they negotiate the slums?”
“I hear ghetto girls are sexually active at nine. How many have you bedded?”
Sometimes George would create stories, knowing too well they would relentlessly take everything in. To them, anything was capable of happening in ‘the ghetto’.
An ardent learner does not for long lag behind, so the second year of secondary (and boarding school) saw the slum boy get into the rhythm. He could even afford to be sad at seeing new boys suffering his miseries of yesteryear, those of adapting, albeit without the slum background.
During vacation, Kiama could never get enough of his friend narrating stories from his posh school. On the other hand, George was appalled at the disparity in everything between his school, and Kiama’s local day school. He thought their uniform looked soiled indeed, unlike their crisp outfit back at his school. Kiama himself narrated exploits involving Betty this or Catherine that, whom George knew well, lived on the last building before the forest edge. On that department, he could agree he was behind, even though Kiama taunted him with what was the use of those ‘oh so fragile’ girls in George’s photo album.
One day, as matters on the national front were gathering heat, demonstrations had been organised to put pressure on the national leadership to be more tolerant on freedom of expression and many other offshoots of democracy. The clamour for political pluralism, it was called. Nyahunyu town was no exception to these disturbances. Mzee Kimenye, having suspected his son’s natural process of growing up would entice him to town to witness such a milestone, decided to make sure George was the one in charge of the animals. There was the expectation of nasty confrontations between the riot police and the demonstrators.
These days though, Kiama was becoming unimpressed with a few of George’s acquired habits, one of which was a predilection for carpentry, which had made him frequent the carpentry section of the NORAD project headquarters within Ndego, just to see the woodworkers in action. Kiama used to ask him what had driven him to like it, jokingly telling him that he thought much higher of him. Just to mention, George had chosen Woodwork as a subject in his school. Another of his habits that Kiama had not warmed up to was that of taking a book to the bush to while away the hours. This meant there was less time for forest mischief.
On the second day of rioting, George had to beseech him to accompany him to the forest, which meant having to leave his book. It was during the post-afternoon calmness of the forest when the hours never seem to move. They were roaming some distance away from the flock when they heard some rustling. A man in a damp shirt that clung to his body, his head turning a hundred times in every direction like a bird on the ground, appeared carrying what seemed an electronic appliance. He roughly covered it with branches and then left the scene, following back whence he had come. They ensured he had gone out of sight before rushing to inspect it. It was a huge brand new music system. They thoroughly scrutinised it, pondered about it, until they were alerted by another rustling as the man returned. They quickly threw the branches over it and ducked undercover.
He appeared once
again with another appliance, hid it as before and disappeared, this time for
quite a long while. They scrutinised this second appliance, boxlike with two
operating knobs - quite a tricky call - and came to the conclusion that it was a
Microwave oven. Kiama did not know what that meant so George told him that this
was actually a tiny version, that there were those in big town hotels, inside of
which you see rows and rows of fifty naked chickens, skewered in a file and
somersaulting as they cook - a picture to behold.
“What madness do you think this is?” Kiama wondered.
“He could be one of those town burglars whose den the police raided in the village.” George suggested, before heightening his sensors again. “Wait! He is coming back.”
They ducked again only for good old Mzee Gatemi to materialise.
“Mzee, what are you doing in these parts?” George called in careful forest greeting so as not to startle him.
“I’ll be cursed if that’s not a voice that beckons a hundred sheep.” Bellowed Gatemi, but Kiama quickly shushed him as if some buffalo were nearby.
It turned out Mzee Gatemi was looking for his troublesome animal, which had developed quick feet earlier on at the displeasure of sighting three empty water drums aboard the cart. Mzee was shown the two appliances and told the story behind them. Having just come from Ndego, he informed the boys that there had been incessant looting in Nyahunyu that day, three deaths too, so the stash must have something to do with it. They decided to play a forest prank on the man.
They waited a further quarter of an hour for their quarry, who arrived this time toting a large container with the picture of an iron box. They silently counted; one-two-three …Bang! Mzee Gatemi expertly smashed his and George’s pangas together. The clang of the metallic blades was to ear-splitting perfection. It was quickly followed by the shout “Oye!” The effect was even greater than they would have expected, as the man got petrified for an instant, dropped his box and took flight at a startling velocity. It took awhile before they had recovered their breath, their ribs aching from laughter. They discussed the situation and, jokingly, dared to split the loot. Mzee Gatemi took the iron boxes and left, while Kiama was to carry the stereo and George the microwave, since it was he who was familiar with the device.
Going home that day, the two boys decided to hide the appliances elsewhere in the forest, then go for them at night. The goods would later end up under Kiama’s bed in his tiny cabin following George’s developing of cold feet on the thought of his dad’s possible reaction. Kiama’s home only served as a temporary hiding place as it was without electricity. A few days later, it would be agreed that George should use the Microwave since his home had already tapped into the slum’s electricity network. He had to make-believe, if asked by Mzee Kimenye, that it belonged to Kiama. Kimenye himself, respecting his son as an adult, rarely entered his room.
The looted Microwave oven did serve some purpose, for George used it to boil water and warm his food after coming from the grazing fields. Rarely did people of Ndego use their electricity for purposes other than lighting and listening to radio. In that respect, many houses thus comprised of a simple switch and its corresponding overhead bulb holder. George and Kiama had done some shoddy modification to his room’s wiring system so as to install the new appliance. Such was George’s respect for this new gadget that its dial position indicating the desired duration of use rarely went beyond the four-minute mark.
On a week of impending tragedy, a lad of George’s age had decided to spend his school holiday in Ndego, visiting his cousin Kiama. This lad was prone to visiting George, by virtue of his being Kiama’s friend, and several times he overstretched his visits, even spending the nights. He was not an easy boy to live with.
If George had seen and heard all perversity the squalid slum life is capable of driving humble people into, he had yet to travel a lot, for here was a boy whose opinion on anything under the sun you feared to ask, given his foul mouth would distort a given subject using a language mostly borrowed from intimate parts of the human anatomy - and embarrass you. He had such a sense of demented treachery. They would be walking together and an attractive member of the opposite sex would pass by, only for Njenga to wait awhile before saying something dirty rather too loudly, then ducking into a nearby alley and leaving his companion reeling with shame and embarrassment. Or if there was conversation at the time the two of them were passing a lady, he would raise his voice at the opportune moment, and his pretended frank answer to a question George surely must have asked (only that he didn’t) left no doubt to that lady as to what kind of perverted character George was.
Njenga opened his
mouth in public, you prayed nobody would remember seeing you near him. So smelly
were his feet at bedtime that George was at a loss which one, between Wangeci’s
cat and Njenga, posed a greater hazard. Even simple tasks were done in
unorthodox style because Njenga was the type who, literally, responded to a
mosquito bite with a mallet. For instance, if a fly was buzzing within the room
in that irritating manner they do, and was unfortunate enough to perch on the
table, Njenga would aim and smash at the table so hard, bringing things toppling
and crashing down. George had regretted teaching him the Microwave’s functions.
In truth, it was difficult to find a redeeming quality in him. It
never surprised George that, in the few days Njenga was to offer unsolicited
help in accompanying him to the grazing fields, Kiama suddenly ‘remembered’
chores he had not finished, and excused himself. Later was George to reflect it
was to avoid an entire day with the devil.
On a morning after Njenga had well and truly overstayed his welcome, George himself was early to rise in order to sort out three animals from the flock, to be delivered by Mzee Kimenye for sale at the abattoir. In the dawning, it was an arduous task of extricating the three animals from the packed room without suffering the misfortune of having several sneak out before grazing time had commenced. He managed it flawlessly but his dad was not yet ready, so he drove the animals quite a distance to Ndego’s main street and waited for the pick-up truck that was to collect other animals at several points along the way. His dad was to take over from there.
Back at home, Njenga was sleeping his last winks of the morning when his slumber was disturbed by strange noises. It was Wangeci’s cat rummaging for leftover fragments of food around the microwave. This animal had come to irritate him in the short period he had become accustomed to Mzee Kimenye’s premises. The oven’s door was ajar, so Njenga held back his initial instinct and cunningly waited for the cat to slowly get lured by more leftovers inside.
What followed was a fit of sheer savagery from Njenga, who stretched across and slammed the oven door shut, spun the function knob to maximum power and the duration knob full circle, then rolled back to sleep. The cat initially meowed with discomfort and a little shock, then gradually started howling and spinning around with total fright as the gadget quickly gathered heat.
The smell of singeing fur started to concern the torturer and into the second minute, the unlucky animal gave out such doleful cries while its confined movements gained utter desperation, causing the appliance to slowly vibrate to the edge of the table top. It finally tipped over as Njenga was realising the folly of his earlier moronic whim, and was jumping to salvage the situation. But it was already too late. The face of the appliance touched the floor first and the power cable and its shoddy extension work became taut in an instant, ripping from the wall before yielding at the weakest point on the ceiling, where an electric short circuit occurred. This small racket generated sounds and sparks that a rural idiot was not prepared for. He got scared on seeing the ceiling catch fire and he shied away from touching the smoking, overturned oven.
“George!” He shouted. “Hurry George there’s a fire!”
He frantically tried to suffocate the flames gathering on the ceiling using a blanket, but his hopping attempts only helped to fan them and it was not long before the room’s inner walls caught fire. In many Ndego houses, newspapers are used as wallpaper; mostly to keep the draughts at bay since resources do not allow for the luxury of expert craftsmanship. A fire never saw better fuel. Njenga ran towards the door but it would not open since George had latched it on the outside as it had a tendency to swing open if left unfastened.
“George!” He shouted again “Mzee Kimenye there’s a fire!”
He decided to save himself by jumping through the window and running around the back to shout for help. The neighbours had jumped out of their beds and were beginning to respond. At the same time, fire was quickly catching the room adjacent to George’s room, one of which contained sheep while the other belonged to an absent tenant. People started raising their alarms, not unaccustomed to the occasional fire hazard in Ndego.
“Is anybody inside? Hey! There is a fire. Come out with water!”
“You there. Release the other animals.”
“Fire! Fire! Fire!”
“I don’t have the key.”
“Break the door down!”
“Kimenye is not here!”
But this was not a fire to be easily extinguished. Screams rent the misty morning air. Animals spilled into the small enclosed area that was the compound while others disgorged into the street. With the fire growing fast, people started rescuing their valuables.
frightened, George arrived to find animals emanating from the premises, blocking
the entrance and making everything unmanageable. They filled every space,
colliding with some people and tripping others. Matters became complex. It was
not easy what to start with; whether to drive animals out, or to struggle to
salvage possessions; or to extinguish the fire. Disaster never pauses to ask, so
every moment of indecision was punished with a voracious fire appetite. George
valiantly tried his best and succeeded in driving out his animals to allow some
movement and facilitate rescue. More people arrived and some started knocking
down part of the premises further away from the fire to create a buffer zone.
Half an hour had elapsed since the fire broke out but it was now reasonably under control, not posing a further danger than that already done. Smoke had fused with fog and the smell of sheep’s fur, burning furniture and hot metal sheets completed the mess. George’s room had been razed to the ground while the surrounding rooms were half burnt, but destroyed nevertheless. Only those rooms much further away from the fire’s source had their walls still standing but their innards choking with dark smoke.
“Mother Maria! What has happened?” Mzee Gatemi arrived, asking an exhausted George who had paused for breath, and could only gesture in dejection.
George remembered that in the confusion, he had seen a woman literally zoom to and fro, salvaging either a bag of clothes or other paraphernalia. On clearer thought, this woman looked like Wangeci -wait a minute! He panicked.
“Where’s little Kimi? Wangeci! Where’s Kimi?”
He swung around, probing everyone around him. He looked towards her room, which was still smoking and flaming. The rest of the people were coming round to the matter of the child and this worked Mzee Gatemi up - that it was a matter to be deliberated upon. He brushed them aside and stormed into that dark, hazardous room. People wondered aloud about his safety and women fell shy of calling Wangeci names in the midst of all the misfortunes. She was now huddled into herself, shaking and looking dazed, defeated. George’s instincts refused to accept genuineness playing a part in her reactions, especially concerning Kimi. Alarm was sounded on Gatemi’s safety until he finally issued forth out of the smoke, flapping and coughing. He then started removing from his long fingernails, fragments of what George observed to resemble animal fat. Mzee Gatemi did not even stop; he just fixed his gaze to a point ahead of him and maintained it as he left the scene, not to return.
Later when the smoke and fire were completely put out, George would look through the glassless window into Wangeci’s room and see the most gruesome sight his eyes had ever settled upon. The half-burnt remains of little Kimi lay on the floor with other debris. The small body was posed in that position regularly practised by Muslims in a mosque; kneeling with the forehead touching the ground. The delicate young flesh of his buttocks, white from burnt fat, was pierced by two white bones protruding from within. He wondered if this is what Gatemi’s fingernails had dug into. The ensuing smell of burnt fabric, plastic, paint, mattresses and more stuff, aggravated what was already a traumatising spectacle.
Mzee Kimenye returned much later and assessed the damage. Despite losing thirty animals, all household furniture and possessions, three quarters of built premises; the demise of little Kimi was the most hurtful misfortune to himself and George. The real cause of the fire was never established. In a week, George was to resume the third term of his third year of secondary school. He was prepared to delay his opening day and help but Mzee Kimenye assured him he would recover from such a disaster without difficulty, that he was a man who had learnt the hard way and he would manage it alone.
The final year of secondary school saw George sadly part from his friends, just when he had become thoroughly accustomed to putting up with rich, spoilt kids. His father’s legs had started failing him and to help herd the animals, he had enlisted the services of a boy whose parents could not afford school fees, nor anything much else. He had not succeeded in rebuilding his entire property, but he had restored two rooms, one for his shelter and the other for his animals. The people had pleaded with him to hold a fund-raiser to bring him back to where he had earlier been, an offer he adamantly but humbly declined.
George’s love for carpentry had grown into what Kiama called a fanatical obsession. He still could not tell why he loved it so much. Because of his love for the forest, George internally thought it had somehow made him love the smell of freshly sawn timber, the feel of a planed surface, the look of grains across a section. Maybe staying too much in the forest had made him want to undress his foliaged friends and see their nakedness. This love would take him far and teach him more.
He spent the year after leaving school alternating between herding the animals and gradually imposing himself as an apprentice at the carpentry section of NORAD’s site headquarters, where he helped in any way he could to the level of becoming a welcome irritant. The head of operations, a middle-aged Miss Martha with an unpronounceable surname and from an even more unpronounceable town in Norway, was fond of this boy’s innate aptitude for woodworking. To test his genuineness, she had given him a task of crafting a mirror stand, the result of which impressed her so much that she allowed him unlimited access to the workshop. She became a family friend and was to become such a tremendous influence in the life of the young man. It was normal for her to visit Mzee Kimenye’s house and she had a commendable hands-on proclivity to life in the slums. George became one of three lucky men in the village to earn a scholarship to study in colleges in Norway, undoubtedly through Martha’s influence. He was qualified to join the local public universities but he would not wait for such a letter because he did not think they offered carpentry as a major course.
Leaving Ndego for what he expected to be two years in Oslo was not to be a tear-free exercise, however ‘man’ he fashioned himself to be. The Sunday before his departure, he sneaked into the forest and admired his favourite glade. He breathed the air of his childhood and early youth. He took a detour past a swamp that was a midday thirst quencher for the animals in the grazing field, and mused how these days, kids were not as playful as during his heyday, for there used to be a part where the reeds had been cleared to leave a large pool of water in which he had swam and over which he had dangerously balanced himself on floating, slippery logs. He thought the reeds had now closed in on the pool. He thought of Kiama, and what his life would be, knowing his friend did not attain marks capable of taking him to university. He prayed his friend would not be lured to the herbal medicine dens, sire five kids who also could not afford to go to secondary school, then themselves keep multiplying Ndego’s squalid masses. But he thought Ndego would be cleaner with the completion of the NORAD toilets. He was sure he would miss so much.
Ten were the years
George spent in Oslo, having matured as a carpenter and into an expert on wood.
So many were the things he learnt. The first world was eons ahead of his
country’s civilisation. Socially, it was galaxies apart from Ndego. Over those
years, constant correspondence with Kiama and few friends at home had followed
the theory of the diminishing curve, as attempts to resume correspondence on his
part produced lesser (if any) returns. Finally the only maintained but
occasional communication dwindled to that with his father, who had now reduced
his animals to ten sheep and one cow in the decade - a result of reduced
pastures. George never understood clearly how that was so. But he could support
him if it were to get worse, so he regularly kept wiring funds into an account
Mzee Kimenye had opened.
Two years after leaving Ndego, George had read some news sad to stomach, that diplomatic links between his country and Norway had been severed, and all mutual interests subsequently disengaged. He knew which side had stood to lose more. By that time thankfully, his scholarship had served its purpose, and his industry had allowed him to work on contract in engagements of varying importance without his hosts requesting his return back home. Such was the scarcity of carpenters in that land, he figured, that his hands were forever full. But that was far back, now he was ready to visit home once more and see whether he could start his own company as he had become an expert in woodworking, and had even undertaken a course on renewable forestry, a thing he imagined would be priceless in Africa. Environmental conservation was a part of life in Norway, if not quite life itself, he accepted. So much had that country become his new home that he was en route to citizenship. He lived for a trip to the fjords every year, and also the majesty of the country’s forests (whose beauty though could not match the bright forests of Marumane). How much he longed to go see this beauty again!
It was time to come back home. His happiness was so much that the few disappointments and hiccups he was experiencing everywhere, from arrival at the airport to the trip to Ndego, did little to dampen his spirits. He arrived at dusk and was hit by that old slum whiff he had forgotten. He was surprised it chilled him. Mzee Kimenye had visibly grown very old but he still had the charm. It was difficult to recognise Kiama amid scars on his face, a distant attitude and a seeming lack of appetite. His dad was later to tell him that his friend had ‘had a problem with health’, that he was rumoured to be ‘taken ill’ and his appetite was for other potent concoctions that had long replaced the herbal doses George was familiar with. They talked the whole night through. So many people he had known, some of whom were younger than him, had also been ‘taken ill’ over the years. This ‘taken ill’ had a terminal assertion to it, driven home by a peculiar emphasis that was leagues above that attached to fatal Malaria. Wangeci herself had been ‘taken ill’ and as expected, succumbed three years after leaving for Nyahunyu town, as did many others after that. George was shocked beyond contemplation, but he had seen nothing yet.
The following day, he woke up at around ten, eager to take a stroll in the forest to receive the only feeling that would redeem the sorrow he had gained from his dad’s briefings. The light of day brought back a flash of memories of the fire, of little Kimi, of the houses, now rebuilt in the same style as the past. The latrine was nearly full and he reflected he would call the municipal council the next day to arrange for a truck to suck the muck, funds not being a problem.
On reaching the
street, he was the subject of many inquisitive stares. He thought it so funny
that he was the one being stared at, like himself and other kids used to stare
at a person who looked too clean and fresh for the slums. In the stroll, he
would encounter people, perhaps an old woman, who would greet him by name and he
would stop to chat.
“George, how tall you’ve grown. And you’re looking like a white man!” She would say, a shy, bare-footed kid tugging at her dress.
“It’s the food there you know. Made to keep them white.” He would joke. “It has even spoilt my eyes. That’s if you’re not Mzee Gatemi’s sister.”
“You’re only joking. Aren’t you? For you must recognise Florence.” It would be said by an embarassed voice hiding a feeling of punctured pride.
“Oh no! It’s worse than I thought. It’s made me blind.” And he would feel so ashamed to have added thirty years to a girl he used to school with.
On reaching the edge of Ndego, he could tell something was not right. The edge of the forest was nowhere to be seen. But he thought that probably the Shamba system was working on this zone near the village. He decided to walk to a nearby hill that he knew would give him a good vantage point. On reaching it, he was aghast. Gentle undulations of shaven hills stretched to the horizon, with remnant clusters of trees and ageing tree stumps speckled about. It was an ulcer-generating spectacle. He knew something was amiss because, during the workable Shamba system, it was easy to tell that a particular zone was open to be concessioned for the exercise, not as contemptible as it was now. In addition, he thought he had seen some parts here and there fenced with barbed wire, a thing never practised on forest land.
He decided to consult a man passing by.
“Why isn’t this ground farmed yet? Isn’t it ready?” George asked.
“Maybe the owner is waiting to fence it. Or maybe to build.”
“What do you mean ‘build’? Are they allowing building on forest land?” George wondered.
The man sized George up and realised he was a stranger.
“All this land belongs to people with Title Deeds. Don’t you know that many people were allocated before the general election?”
“But this is a forest …”
“Not any more.”
Here they had to look for a place to sit down for George to catch up. So downtrodden was he to learn that even if he were to continue walking miles, he would not see what he had come for. As for buffalo and Guinea fowl, the man joked that George needed a mental examination, for those were tales. George never thought tales to be that young, believing that they developed centuries after the actual deed on which they were based, not a decade. It was such a blow to realise that he was perched on the very swamp he had reminisced about while in Norway. They had settled there because it looked like just another grassy place to sit on. He could do nothing more than remain silently stunned. His childhood paradise had been raped.
The few weeks he spent touring the home country he had never toured opened his eyes to other revelations. Everywhere he went, being a keen lover of nature, he would peruse documents, read archives and listen to guides, and a recurrent theme used to be in the form;
“Animals used to come and water here every hour.” He did not wish to ask what had made them change.
“This trench too was once a tributary to that seasonal stream over there.” And he would not ask whether the tributary itself, when it was one, used to be all-season.
What he called home was in reality a squirrel rushing thoughtlessly into the mouth of a python. Here lay the faded beauty of a country despoiled. He realised that environmental metamorphosis was just a physical pointer to what was already an erosion of everything moral in the collective mind of the people, especially those handed the responsibility of managing public resources. He failed to understand how a country governed by the most educated people was capable of sliding into such ignominy! Weren’t these leaders people who had been schooled in the first world like himself, who understood the merits of governance devoid of blind greed, governance based upon ethics, integrity and moral responsibility?
Not that many years before, the country was a young delicate maiden. Today, her once enchanting eyes have been ruthlessly gouged out with a blunt object, and the long, fluttering eyelashes mercilessly singed with embers. While you relished looking into those eyes, you now quickly look away when your gaze accidentally rests on the ugly, haunted sockets.
The slender, graceful legs that would carry a womb to bear another beauty and continue the heritage - that dream is no more. Corpulent beasts cloaked in human garb have shamelessly lusted after those pre-pubescent, yet-to-be-nubile features. They have violently forced them asunder, wedged their sooty appendages betwixt, and desecrated the bud, never to unfurl into the next magnificent flower. And those were the ones fortunate enough to survive the ordeal, as many it were who suffocated under the heavy, viscous potbelly.
You are hit by an
epiphany, and you become aware of a growing culture of the harvesting policy,
where nothing had been sown; of blaming the rain when you did not thatch - and
it interrupts your sleep; of a malignant passion for self destruction; of a
tendency to mock the universe by consuming without regeneration; of a depravity
beyond the realm of mere misdemeanour;…of Paedophilia. Paedophilia it is, and it
is everywhere, legitimised by the blind eye of those entrusted to caution and
lead those without the privileges such as they have. But the heads are the
George had once visited Oslo’s National Art Museum and seen Edvard Munch’s celebrated work, The scream. At that time, he had failed to understand what he casually took as an imposition of highfalutin ideas on a painting he thought he could sketch blindfolded. In hindsight, it depicted exactly what he now felt, and he could not wait to return and proffer Munch his deserved respect.
He knew that to rush back to the first world and escape the shame so poignant everywhere was to carry with him the sordid nightmares, yet to remain was to live in them. Perhaps his childhood forest had served its purpose, for he wanted to believe everything was for a purpose. He tried to manufacture a reason to vindicate his intended and immediate flight from his motherland, so he told himself that Marumane had fed the animals that educated him, and had taught him more. This he could live with, even though something kept asking him what would educate the next George. Africa was his home no more. If a tick can live on sheep and dogs alike, he was as much at home in Norway as he had once been in his own country.
In the language of the forest, George knew well that the young one of a bird has no other option but to fly out of the nest when its mother fails to return, for she might already be digesting in the belly of a predator. But then again, there’s always hope. It was all he could imagine. A hope that maybe he will come back more powerful, prepared, and less scared of consigning paedophiles to where they belong. Then will it be that he will make a difference.