Valley of the Shadow of Death
By Evans Kinyua (Kenya)
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I stared gloomily across the ridge, my eyes open but unseeing, awake but oblivious of the undulating valleys of my beloved land. Numerous species of birds chirped and cawed, nonchalant and happy in their carefree existence.
In the far background of my mind, as if in distant echo, the sounds of my young wife pottering about in the process of mundane and mainly pointless chores vaguely registered, as they frequently did these last few months when these bouts of crashing defeat and despondency assaulted me.
The plate of githeri that Monica, my sweet young wife, placed in front of me twenty minutes ago has gone cold. Even when warm, a concoction of boiled dry maize and beans boasting only salt for condiment fails dismally in the culinary Olympics. When cold, it just about kills the urge for food. The meal is also visually uninspiring. But to an empty and growling stomach thirsting for nourishment, such inhibitions that the mind and eye perceive about the offering are inconsequential.
My hand gropes for the spoon, scoops the cold grains and delivers the load to my mouth which dutifully opens to receive it, and the teeth begin to do their job, jaws chomping rhythmically to the beat of the eating song. My eyes continue to regardthe far distance. I am eating but I am not really here. My taste buds refuse to acknowledge the little flavor in this meal.
Unknown to my conscious self, my mind is at full rev, breaking the speed limit, considering and discarding alternative courses of action out of this cloying poverty.
It has already identified the problem and analyzed the possible options, to wit, that my wife of two years is pregnant with our second child, yet we can barely feed, let alone clothe, the first one. I am too poor to fend for them. I am not lazy, no, Sir. I am able and willing to work, which makes this waking dream painful to endure.
I own only half a hectare of land, part of which is taken by the two huts that pass for our residence. Another section is eaten up by a large outcropping of rock that Ngai saw fit to place in the way of my puny efforts to fend for my family.
I have seven brothers, some of whom own even less than I, as if that is possible, but they manage the feat. Incredibly, two of them have been heard to complain loudly and bitterly that I have been favored by our father, when he divided his land amongst the sons. I fear where this will end. I have witnessed similar disagreements, almost always about land, which escalate from rumblings of disenchantment, to overt aggression and ultimately to bloodshed.
My son is one and a half years old. My eyes see him through the gray haze of contemplation, small and dirty, rolling about in the dust, snot drooling from tiny nostrils, fecal remains cementing his little naked buttocks like glue. But he is happy, playing with sticks and pebbles, quite the bundle of joy.
I love him deeply with all my heart, throw in the lungs as well. Just as much as I love my lovely wife Monica Njeri, who, like I said before, is pregnant once again. But I fear, nay, I am terrified sick, that I will never be able to take care of them the way a man is expected to take care of his family.
Chomp, chomp, chomp, go my jaws, grinding the mouthful of maize and beans to a pulp. The first spoonful was ready to swallow a long time ago but I forgot. So, on goes the chewing.
In its own inexorable way, in ways that man may never fully comprehend, my mind weighs the options available to me and ping!, goes the bell.
“Monica, Monica, Monica my dear,” I yell.
“Ii muthuri wakwa”, (Yes, my husband), Monica replies, pausing in the middle of her chores.
“Come here. I have something very important to say.”
Monica comes to me, and I swallow the food that I have been chewing for the last ten minutes.
“Sit down here, next to me”, I tell her, patting the ground next to the three legged stool that I am sitting on. Monica comes to me, sits on the place indicated, and puts her hands on my knee. She looks up at me questioningly, her eyes wide and round.
“I am leaving”, I say to her.
The tone of my voice is flat, unemotional and foreboding. She doesn’t say anything, she just sits there staring up at me in trepidation.
“I am leaving”, I repeat.
When she still doesn’t react, my eyes wonder down to her stomach, which is distended with her seventh month pregnancy. I look at our son, who is now contentedly munching on a piece of roasted sweet potato that his mother had given him while my mind was wandering in deep reverie. Thus surrounded by my pitiful little family, I survey the dilapidated huts that comprise our dwellings, and my heart lurches in profound pain. The depth of our poverty, the hopelessness of our existence and my failure to fulfill my obligations to them wrenches my heart and sears my soul. But it also hardens my resolve to change things.
“I have to go away to look for work”, I tell my wife, stroking her cheek and caressing her shoulder.
“Where will you go? There is no work anywhere”, she speaks for the first time in the form of a question.
The year is 1942.The Europeans have taken over much of the land. They have even renamed Murang’a, the beautiful land of undulating hills, valleys and many rivers. They called it Fort Hall, which our people cannot pronounce. Many able bodied men have been rounded up for forced labor in far away places. I was spared only because my foot is deformed .For that I am grateful to God.
Back to the present, I answer my wife’s question, tears welling in my eyes. “I have heard it said that there is work in the Wazungu’s farms in the Rift Valley. I hear that they pay well.”
“You have never been outside Murang’a. Not even Nairobi. You know nobody in these places,” she said.
“A man must do what he must do to provide for his family,” I respond.
“You could get lost or you could even be killed. You don’t know what the people who live there are like, and those who live in the places that you will pass through,” she worries.
“It is a risk I am willing to take, my love. Look at this,” I say, my arms encompassing our pitiful little empire. “If I stay here there will be no end to our suffering. I am doing this for you, for our little boy, and the baby growing inside your stomach.”
“You will be conscripted for forced labor, like the other men,” she says, her voice breaking into soft sobs.
“No, no I won’t. They are only taking the men from Kikuyu land because the Kikuyu are resisting their rule. I understand that over there, in the Rift Valley, the land is enough for everyone, even the wazungu.”
“Maybe those stories that you hear are not true. At worst, they could force you to join their army and take you to fight in distant lands like they took Mwangi, Mucheru, Josiah, Gacheru, Wa Maria, Kariuki………,” her voice trails off, the soft cries becoming full throttle wailing. “Then you will be killed and what will I do with our children?”
“Quit crying, woman”, I order, trying to be a strong man as required by our culture. “Staying here is similar to a death sentence, similar to all those things you say. A lifetime of this kind of poverty will kill us as surely as any other kind of death.”
“In any case, you are aware that my brothers are angry that our father gave me a larger parcel of land. You have seen how unfriendly they have become. Sooner or later they could turn violent and even kill me. Is that a better death?” I ask her.
“Yes my husband, I worry about that too. But you are leaving us here to a fate they may still visit upon me and the children.”
“Once I settle down, earn some money and buy some land, I will come for you, I promise.”
That night we sat outside late into the night, talking quietly under the bright moonlight, a million stars twinkling in the sky, a fitting accompaniment to our final farewells. Within the gloom that filled us, there was also a glimmer of hope for our future, much like any of the stars shining above.
I left early the next morning, throwing over my shoulder a long stick to which was tied a few items rolled into a bundle using my wife’s flower patterned lesso.
The final parting was difficult. It was taboo for a man to shed tears under any circumstance, including the most excruciating pain, but this was even worse than physical pain, and my heart throbbed with a dull ache and I could feel my tears about to burst open. Monica wailed uncontrollably as I hugged her for the last time, possibly for ever, as both of us must have been thinking. Without another glance backwards to where she and my son were standing forlorn, lest I lose my resolve, I set off briskly down the narrow path towards the main road.
In my pocket I had two shillings and fifty cents, the half of the five shillings that I had squirreled away with the aim of purchasing a bicycle. The other half I left my wife, a princely sum in those days. Hopefully by the time she finished it I would have earned some money to send to her. If I fail she would have to rely on her wits and providence.
To save the money and make it last, I decided to walk to Nairobi, a distance of about seventy kilometers. In those days the majority of Africans walked distances that were many times longer that this, so my seventy kilometers was nothing to write home about. Few Africans had ever seen a motor vehicle, let alone ridden in one. Walking was the standard means of locomotion then. I had once ridden in the local missionary’s land rover, which summarized ended my experience in motorized travel.
That day I did fifty kilometers, eating up the distance at a steady clip. Frequently I met other travelers going in the same direction and joined them, chatting in Kikuyu since I was still in our peoples’ land. They were strangers but their company helped to kill the loneliness and the conversation quelled my fears for the unknown. When dusk fell, I knocked at one of the homesteads and begged for a place to sleep, explaining that I was from Murang’a and was on a long journey .The Kiambu people were kind to me (I was now in Kiambu, which neighbors Nairobi, the big city),and they fed me well and gave me a bed for the night. Those days were different, not like today when you cannot dare leave your house after dark, let alone knock a stranger’s house and ask for accommodation. Today, that would be tantamount to a death wish.
I got to Nairobi at noon the next day. This was my first time in the city, and the thrill of it temporarily masked my fear of what lay ahead.
Never before had I ever seen so many motor vehicles of diverse shapes and colors. There were also rickshaws, some horse driven and some pulled by people, always people of African descent. The passengers were white, the women wearing nice dresses and veils, the men in black suits and homburgs. The city was divided into sections according to race. The Asians, the whites and the blacks were segregated. I had been told to make sure that my kipande (identity card) was hanging around my neck as was the requirement for Africans.
That night I slept in a cheap boarding and lodging facility, the comfort for which I paid a handsome twenty cents. Those comforts included one very small metal bed with a very thin mattress which ensured that the map of the springs was tattooed on my back come morning. A colony of bed bugs was available for company therefore the night was nowhere near boring. For those who do not like bed bugs, there was an option of lice.
The following morning I took a cold bath using a stained bucket, taking the liberty to dry myself off with the tattered sheets. Breakfast consisted of black tea and boiled sweet potatoes, bought from the Kikuyu woman who had set up a rudimentary kitchen outside the building. I spent some time communicating with her, thereby gleaning a wealth of information about life in the city, much of which I did not like. At my request, she gave me directions to the railway station, for the next stage of my journey, a stage I much looked forward to.
Everything was a first for me. I was wide eyed and awe struck by the train, a very long snake with more than thirty couches attached. I paid one shilling for the ticket to Eldoret and boarded the train at 3PM. Like everything else, the train was segregated by race. The Africans took up the last four coaches next to the wagons that carried animals and other goods. We were packed like sardines inside the coaches which had tiny windows and wooden benches screwed onto the floor. The windows let in very little air and the ventilation was extremely poor. Within ten minutes the coach was as hot as an oven.
As sang by Roger Whittaker, the good old EAR& H (East African Railways and Harbors) train chuffed slowly up the escarpment from Nairobi towards Limuru, down the slope to the Rift Valleyfloor, past the picturesque lake Naivasha, Elementaita and Nakuru, as we sweated and breathed stale air in our coach.
We arrived in Eldoret the following morning at dawn. Everyone scrambled to alight, gasping for clean air and hungry for food and drink.
I could see the wazungu alighting from their spacious coaches at the far end of the train, clean and resplendent in their starched and pressed Safari suits and hats, the women in colorful dresses and sun visors. At least they had enjoyed a two hour break at the station restaurant in Nakuru, where we Africans had been forbidden to alight, spending the two motionless hours steaming and cooking in the stinking coach.
So here I was finally at my destination. It looked just like the way I had imagined it. Lush green countryside, most of it uninhabited, virgin and ready for farming. Just looking at it had me salivating, dreaming of my own farm full of a healthy crop of maize, potatoes, beans, maybe even tea and wheat. This was truly heaven compared to the little pockets of tired soil that passed for land back in Murang’a.
Well, here I was ,but what next? All the Kikuyus I had met on the train to Eldoret were already employed on white owned farms. They were a friendly lot, and I had made friends with one of them, Muchina Wa Muthiora. I frantically looked for him now, before everyone dispersed and I was left stranded. I saw him lugging a battered metal box from the train and run over to him.
“Muchina, this land is very fertile. I am glad I came here,” I started.
“It is, isn’t it? I think it’s the best piece of real estate in this country,” Muchina replied.
“You have a farm here?” I asked. Maybe he had his own farm where his family lived while he worked for the white man.
“I wish I had,” he answered. “But it’s a tall order for outsiders like us to own land here. I don’t know any immigrant Kikuyu who does. All those I know work for the settlers.”
“Can I find work around here?” I asked, praying that the answer would be affirmative. It was. The gods were smiling upon me that day.
“You are in luck. My boss is looking for a farm hand. Come with me, I will introduce you to him.”
Muchina Wa Muthiora was a barrel chested six foot four hulk. He effortlessly threw the suitcase onto his shoulder and beckoned me to follow him. We walked for most of the day, arriving at a magnificent estate on which stood an imposing mansion. It had two floors. Three turretsand a huge chimney jutted into the sky from a high roof. The monolithic building dwarfed everything around it. Outside the compound grew a splendid array of flowers in a riot f colors. A gushing fountain made pleasant music in the yard outside, sparkling in a kaleidoscope of rainbow hues formed by the orange sun setting in the West. To say that I was dumbstruck doesn’t do justice to the superlative.
Off to one side, about fifty meters away, were stables for horses. I estimated that they held over forty horses inside, braying and snorting loudly.
The castle stood near the top of a gentle hill overlooking the farm, which stretched off into the far distance. In three directions were fields of wheat, maize and sunflower in neat rows. As far as the eye could see, on and on went the farm. It wasn’t a farm in any description that I had ever imagined. It was simply too big for any description that I could muster.
There was a workshop holding many farm implements. I could see two tractors and a saw mill. A small footpath meandered around the workshop, away from the big house. We followed this one, Muchina Wa Muthiora explaining everything as we went.
“This farm, does it belong to one person?” I asked, my voice betraying my state of incomprehension.
“You are surprised huh? Everyone who comes here usually is. It all belongs to Bwana John Winslow. We call him “Kiboko”, Muchina said.
“I thought you would take me to him. I notice that we have left the big house behind,” I asked, at the back of my mind thinking about the job that Muchina had promised.
“All in good time, young man”, he said. We shall see him tomorrow. It is already five o’clock and the work is over for the day. Kiboko is in his house right now, dressing up to go to their club in Eldoret. We shall see him tomorrow morning.”
Thus assured, I followed Muchina obediently, wondering where he lived, which is where I assumed we were headed.
A little village nestled between two small hills came into view. At the bottom were two streams, which converged and became one, the clear water frothing white foam as it cascaded over the rocks at the bottom. The village consisted of a cluster of about two hundred huts, separated into what I estimated to be about fifty households. The whole establishment was surrounded by a thorn brush fence that grew to a great height. We entered the village through a gate built where there was a gap in the fence.
Inside the compound, naked children played happily, running helter-skelter and generally having a good time. They chattered in a cacophony of mixed languages, the dominant ones being Kikuyu, which I could understand, and another language that I assumed was Kalenjin.
Muchina Wa Muthiora’s compound was larger than others, and his three huts were bigger too. He introduced me to his wife and three children, a boy of ten, a girl of seven and the last one a boy of two years. Coincidentally, his wife’s second name was Njeri, just like my own Njeri, a fact that I volunteered. It helped to thaw the ice of my unexpected appearance.
The wife was thrilled to have a visitor from the old country (they referred to the central Kenya Kikuyu land as the old country) and she had many questions to ask. I too had questions.
“Did you come with your family the first time?” I asked Muchina, who had already explained that he hailed from Karatina, about thirty Kilometers away from my home in Murang’a.
“No. I had no idea where I was going and what conditions I would find. You cannot take your family on such an exploratory expedition. I came alone, and later went back for them,” he answered.
“How long have you been working for Kiboko?”
“Fifteen years. I came here in 1927.”
Muchina noted my surprise. “Yes, its been a long time. Kiboko had not yet built that magnificent castle that you saw. He lived in a tent then.”
I had many questions burning to be asked. “Is he married? Does he have a family?”
“He has a wife and a ten year old daughter.”
“Did he buy all that land?” I continued.
“Come on, Mburu, wake up to the new reality. Which white man has bought any land from any African? Including those wazungu in Central province where you and I come from?”
I was chastised for my ignorance of the obvious, still holding desperately to a wispy concept of justice and fairness.
“And just in case you think the farm you saw is all, a greater shock awaits you. What you witnessed is only how far your eyes could see. Kiboko owns one hundred thousand hectares. You can take three days crossing it on foot. He owns rivers, plains, valleys, forests and everything in them.”
“Haaiya”, I stutter the word that describes extreme surprise in our Kikuyu tongue. “Was the land empty when he… um, uh, um took it?.”
“Hardly. It was commonly owned by the Kalenjin people. You will meet them tomorrow. The Kalenjin are herders and pastoralists. They had no use for crop farming. They roamed the land with their cows.”
“So he chased them away? Took their land by force?”
“The Kalenjin are few, and their land is very, very big. Kiboko negotiated with their paramount chief. He gave the chief a magnifying glass. Once he demonstrated that fire starting trick with the glass and sun, the chief was so smitten that he relinquished all that real estate to Kiboko in exchange for the magic glass.”
“How did he get rid of the ordinary Kalenjins from the land, even if the chief gave it to him?.”
“He used the gun. Kiboko had his guns, and a small army of African enforcers. And of course he had his whip. He rode his huge black house, terrifying in itself, brandishing his favorite leather whip. I understand it’s made from hippopotamus leather. The crack of the whip when it landed on a hapless African’s back was like a gunshot. The poor victim’s back would be torn open by just one lash. In addition, he had the colonial forces to back him up.”
“So that is where his nickname originates?” Kiboko means whip in Swahili,” I muttered quietly, now quite terrified about meeting Bwana Kiboko the following day. I mentioned my trepidation to Muchina, who laughed it off.
“Do not be scared. You have not committed any wrong. He will be curt with you, as he is with all of us, but he will cause you no harm.”
“Still…… I am not so sure…,” I stammered.
“In any case you will be with me. I haven’t told you, but I am the foreman of the Winslow estate. You may have noticed that my compound is larger than the rest,” Muchina explained further to quell my fear. “I will take care of you.” Just then his wife appeared with supper.
“You two quit your yawing and eat your supper. You must be tired after your long journey, and tomorrow you will be up early.”
She set the food down on the mat laid out on the ground. We were sitting outside the biggest hut on low stools carved in exquisite African workmanship.
“Our guest must be exhausted too. He needs to eat and sleep,” she ordered in a matronly fashion.
We tucked hungrily into the offering, consisting of ugali (maize meal cooked with water like thick porridge) and some green vegetables with a tangy aftertaste that I had never eaten before.
After supper I was shown to my bed. It was a simple contraption made from tough material (it looked like the material that gurney bags are made of) fastened to the four corners of an X- shaped wooden stand. It was rudimentary but quite comfortable.
I slept as soon as I lay down, despite my anxiety. My tired body succumbed to the rigorsand excitement of last the last two days, and the night passed quickly.
I was woken up at 6AM to take a cold bath in the river, and thereafter Muchina’s wife offered me a calabash of sugarless porridge. Thereafter we set off for the Kiboko’s house. About two hundred other people joined Muchina and I as we trudged along the same path towards the big house.
About two hundred or so people lined up in neat rows outside the imposing building. They formed five rows, standing quietly, as I stood aside fidgeting nervously. Muchina took his place in front of the quasi-military formation.
At exactly 7AM the big mahogany doors of the castle opened and a bull framed mzungu strode out. I needed no further introduction to John “Kiboko” Winslow. This could be none other than the subject so aptly described by Muchina the evening before. He carried a leather whip.
His girth rivaled the great baobab tree and his weight was probably in the one hundred Kilogram range. He wore a khaki shirt and an open Safari jacket with a khaki trouser to match. Both jacket and trouser had numerous pockets with zips. The dome of his balding head was shining with small rivuletsof sweat despite the early morning chill. His florid face was red. I thought that perhaps he had taken a very hot bath or a hot breakfast. I later came to learn that he made it a habit to ride his horse hard around the estate every morning.
He matched like a master sergeant right up to Muchina, the former standing rigidly to attention. For a minute he glared at Muchina, before sweeping his eyes over the rest of the crew. His demeanor was forbidding, the eyes ominous like dark clouds gathering for a storm.
“Muchna, (he could not pronounce Muchina, loosing a vowel in the process), I see you are back in time from your safari. Quite a surprise, really, seeing as keeping time is alien to the native psyche,” he roared.
“Yes,, master,” Muchina answered, although it was not a question.
“Have you counted the watu?”, he asked, using the swahili word for ‘people’ that the colonialists somehow managed to sound pejorative.
“Yes, master.” Muchina sounded like a broken record, and I watched this exchange with a mixture of fear and curiosity.
“Muzuri sana” (very good) , Kiboko said. “Today, we have four areas of work. Picking the tea, weeding the sun flowers, planting wheat and of course there is the usual crew for the dairy section. In addition, I will need a few people for compound landscaping,” Kiboko rattled off instructions for the day in his deep, gravelly voice. “Muchna, divide the watu into the necessary groups and issue the equipment needed from the workshop.”
“Eh, uum, eeh…,”Muchina began, but was rudely and very loudly cut short.
“Now!,” Kiboko roared.
Muchina turned to the workers and in a mixture of Kikuyu, swahili and a smattering of Kalenjin, explained the instructions issued. I stood waiting as he led the workers to the shed to implement the orders. For half an hour I stood there, unsure of what to do, shuffling from foot to foot and staring at the sky, doing my best to avoid the eyes of Bwana Kiboko. He continued standing where he had halted and issued orders from, his gaze alternating between the busy workers and me. Other than gazing at me with baleful, belligerent eyes, he otherwise ignored my presence. Without Muchina to guide me, I was at a loss and completely out of my depth. I hoped Muchina would be back soon. Just when my instincts were telling me to bolt, Muchina came back running.
“Kwisha, (I have finished) master,” he said.
“Very good,” Kiboko said.
“And who is this?” he asked, pointing at me with a crooked fore finger. His tone made me feel like the remains of a cat’s dinner.
“He is Mburu Kimemia, master. I came with him. You asked me to find one more hand,” Muchina explained.
“Huh, I see,” Kiboko said, and approached me with those purposeful steps. Just as I was about to quickly step aside thinking he was going to collide with me, he came to a halt, his face one foot from mine, towering and glowering. The assault caused my jewels of manhood to shrivel and retreat into their sacs, the cowardly things.
“Boy, where do you come from, boy?” he thundered.
“Murang’a, master,” I answered, borrowing Muchina’s broken record.
“That is the place of the wakora (thugs), these maumau who are beginning to cause trouble? Are you a mkora?,” Kiboko asked, flipping his whip and making it snap like a gun shot. I cowered and almost wet myself.
“Hapana master. Mimi sio mkora” (no master, I am not a thug), I declared my innocence about maumau activities.
“Okay. Haya, Muchna, peleka yeye and show him where to build nyumba”, (Muchina, go and show him where to build his house), kiboko instructed Muchina. Then take him to the maize farm,” Kiboko said as he turned and strode towards the stables.
Muchina led me back towards the village. I stole a backward glance in time to see bwana Kiboko disappearing on horseback in the direction of the farm, whip flicking menacingly in the air. I breathed a sigh of relief so audible that Muchina laughed out loud.
“Don’t worry about him. You will just get used to his brusque manner and theatrics. So long as you do your job, you will be okay,” Muchina attempted to reassure me.
“Isn’t he ever friendly, like when you do a good job?” I asked.
“Never. Don’t hold your breath. The master servant positions are an unbridgeable dichotomy. A smile from him would be a bridge across that chasm. He and the other wazungu cannot countenance that,” Muchina adviced. I had hitherto had no interaction whatsoever with the colonizers. I was now getting it in mega doses.
We got back to the village and Muchina took me to a corner which was not built. He measured out twenty by twenty foot plot, using his strides to mark the measurements.
‘You will build your hut here. You can build two if you want,” he said.
I was crestfallen. How do I build a hut alone? And in the meantime where do I live? Kiboko had stated that I should start work immediately. Where will I get the time to build? These questions I directed to Muchina.
“You can build your hut on Sunday. We do not work on Sundays. I will mobilize the other workers to help you,” Muchina said in response.
“Where shall I stay before the hut is built?”
“For those few days, you are very welcome to stay in my house,” he offered, for which I was eternally grateful and told him so.
“Bwana Kiboko did not say anything about my salary. I was too scared to bring it up. What is your opinion? How should I proceed?” I asked.
“You were wise to keep quiet about pay. Bwana Kiboko would have ranted about how you want to talk about money before you prove your worth. Anyhow, the salary is three shillings per month. In addition, you will get one sack of maize flour per month, a tin of beans and one of cooking oil,” Muchina said, as he bid me to follow him out of the village.
We diverted from the path that led to Kiboko’s house. Half a Kilometer away, where the forested part of the estate began, we came to a place where there were crops growing. These were isolated from the neat rows of the main farm. There was maize, cabbages, kales, millet, sorghum, sweet potatoes, cowpeas and a number of other crops growing in numerous gardens, separated by rickety bits of fencing fashioned out of sticks and stones.
“This is the area where the villagers are allowed by Bwana Kiboko to grow whatever they wish, to supplement their food rations.” Once again Muchina measured out a plot. “This is yours. Our women and children take care of it on Sundays. I presume you will be sending for your wife and children in future.”
I was thrilled by the arrangement. Three shillings per month, compared to the five shillings I had been able to save in one year back home? This was heavenly. With a fertile kitchen garden thrown in!
My orientationdispensed with, we went back to the workshop, collected hoes and went to the maize farm, where we joined the crew in weeding the crop. We worked the whole day. Bwana Kiboko passed by twice, to monitor the progress. Muchina explained that he spent the day moving from crew to crew working in various sections, always on horseback. At lunchtime he retreated to his castle, coming out again at 3.00PM. For the workers, they had to contend with whatever packed lunch each had carried from home, with a half an hour break.
I slowly blended into the community and routine. The other workers were friendly and they helped me to build my first hut. I received my rations as promised by Muchina, and I planted crops on my allocated piece of land, using seeds and seedlings borrowed from other workers.
At the end of two years I had saved seventy shillings, since there was little that one needed to spend money on. I only spent a few shillings purchasing some miscellaneous items like a mirror, comb, basic utensils, a penknife and such.
I felt that I was finally in control of my life, and at the end of the second year, I requested for permission to go and bring my family. My wife was very excited at my appearance in Murang’a and my tales of the new job, bwana Kiboko, the estate and everything else. She had given birth to a baby girl whom she named Bahati, the Swahili word for good luck. That was in 1944, at the height of the second world war.
In January of that year we traveled back to the Kiboko estate, and settled in. We had food in abundance, and our children were well fed and healthy. I could afford to buy them clothes, and still save most of my salary. Life was good, but it had some new challenges. These related to Bwana Kiboko.
Quite often, we would be called to witness the punishment of a worker over some misdemeanor or other, such as theft of a farm tool, or absence from work without authority. These punishments were brutal.
Bwana Kiboko would order the worker to remove his shirt. While we watched, he would whip his mercilessly, each lash opening the flesh as the victim howled in pain and begged for mercy.
These sessions were also attended by the white missionary, an elderly gentleman whose kindly mien belied a steely devotion to the Anglicization of the pagan African. He would stand there, looking appropriately saddened by the necessity of such violence, but, as he would explain, it was important that the children of God be taught the virtues of Godly living at all costs.
The whimpering victim’s wounds would then be lathered with salt, to make sure that the lesson was etched in his (and our) memory, to discourage repeat offence.
The good Reverend would then be invited by bwana Kiboko to address the gathering. He would lurch onto the spare- the -rod- and-spoil-the-child routine, and such choice verses that he could glean from the Bible, but always those that glorified and defended punishment as a virtue. He would touch on the woman who turned into a pillar of salt for such a simple transgression as turning her head, as we looked on meekly.
He would not pass the opportunity to preach the necessity of the white man’s presence in the black man’s country, managing to make it sound as if it was a truly big burden and sacrifice on the part of the white man, to remove the evils of idol worship and atheism from him, and bring him up to speed on modern civilization.
He would rumble on about the multificence of God, the love that God had shown to the African by giving him a beautiful, fertile land with many resources, in all its majesty and diversity, but the African had turned his back on him by worshipping Ngai, the God of Mt Kenya, and other idol gods. As such, explained the Reverend Pearson Brett patiently, as if to autistic children, it was the inviolable responsibility of the white man to put the black man’s relationship with God back on track, lest the whole African race be doomed to oblivion unlimited, ad infinatum.
Otherwise, life was pretty humdrum for us workers. The end of the war in 1945 bypassed us virtually unnoticed. The declaration of emergency in the Kenya colony did not affect life much at the Kiboko estate, save perhaps for the increased outbursts from bwana Kiboko and a higher than usual temper.
We lived harmoniously with the other tribes in the workers village. There were more Kikuyu workers than Kalenjins, despite the fact that the estate was smack in the middle of Kalenjin land. It was said that bwana Kiboko, and other settlers like him, preferred Kikuyu workers from Central province because they came from a culture of farming. Unlike the Kalenjin who were herders and cattle keepers and therefore had little knowledge or interest in crop husbandry.
In our village, us Kikuyu were the majority, but there were a significant number of Kalenjins as well. We lived like sisters and brothers, and with time the Kalenjin learnt to speak the Kikuyu language, and we too learnt the Kalenjin tongue. The children virtually blended together in a multilingual environment.
Five years into my employment at the Kiboko estate, I stumbled upon an idea that would change my life. As I explored the estate, usually on our free Sundays, I discovered the forested and virgin part that Muchina had told me about. It was large and inhabited by wild animals. Obviously, bwana Kiboko never ventured to these parts. I decided to make use of it for my own benefit, and risk the wrath of the master if I was caught.
Deep in the forest, I identified a five acre piece of land and began secretly tilling it. I did this on Sundays and sometimes at night by moonlight. I planted maize and beans. Not even my wife knew about it, for I did not want to risk the news leaking out. At the end of each season I would harvest many sacks of produce. By that time, I knew some Africans who did business in Eldoret town, and I sold my illegal contraband to them. They would come and collect it in the night.
The work was very demanding, since I still had to work Monday to Saturday for bwana Kiboko. It took a toll on me since I had to work the extra land alone, but the results were much worth the labor. Year in, year out, I continued with the side business. Between 1945 and 1963, I saved a fortune.
Kenya won independence in 1963, and the new African president, Jomo Kenyatta, gave the settlers the choice of leaving or staying in Kenya. In a famous public address in Nakuru town in the Rift Vallley, he proclaimed that “we shall forgive but never forget”, and that for the settlers wishing to leave, the government would buy their farms in compensation. Never mind that the settlers had got that land for free from the Africans, using force or varied forms chicanery.
Kenyatta’s government also organized Africans to form land buying companies, ostensibly to provide financial capacity to the poor Africans to enable them buy settler farms.
I didn’t wait for these events to reach the Winslow estate. When bwana Kiboko announced to the workers that he was leaving (he had already dispatched his wife and daughter to England), I organized my fellow workers to pool their savings and we made an offer to him. In his first show of magnanimity to us, bwana Kiboko accepted our offer and gave us the first priority, despite the fact that our offer was quite low compared to the Kenyatta cronies. From my clandestine farming activities I had saved a small fortune, and I was able to purchase a bigger piece of land than my colleagues. I purchased one hundred acres. The young man from Murang’a with a deformed foot had arrived.
Using the balance from my savings, I put up a modest three bed roomed brick house on my one hundred hectares. Life was looking up. It was a gigantic leap from my tiny piece of land in Muran’ga, and from the workers’ Bantustan on the Kiboko estate.
The huge estate was divided among the workers. My neighbors were a mosaic of Kalenjin, Kikuyu and Kisii tribes, and one or two from other tribes such as Luo and Luhya.
We felt justified to own land, since we had bought it with our hard earned money. Kenyatta’s land buying companies also bought big farms in the Rift Valley from departing colonialists. Unfortunately, the majority of Africans that were given the opportunity to settle on these lands were Kikuyus from Central province, his own people, at the expense of the Kalenjin and the maasai who were the original inhabitants. This would come to haunt the country, and totally disrupt the life that I had worked so hard to build, in the form of ethnic disenchantment.
Under the new government, we prospered. We were no longer treated like the Aborigines of Australia, the “first nation” Indians of North America, or the blacks of South Africa under apartheid. It was our land.
The new black elite also allocated themselves extensive tracts of land. The poor Mau mau fighters, fresh from war in the forests fighting to reclaim their land, were ignored. This too, would be a costly mistake whose effects would reverberate across the land for years to come. The new African elite had simply taken over from where the white colonialist left. Exploitation of the masses remained. From a white man’s colony, it was now a black man’s colony.
From 1963, to the early 1990’s, we lived in peace. We lived together with the Kalenjins as good neighbors. Our children were friends and attended the same schools.
I did well for myself and managed to put up a maize milling machine. I also purchased a vehicle, a pick up truck to assist in my farming activities.
By now I had six children. My first born son, the one born in Murang’a, studied up to “O” level and ventured into business in Eldoret town. He married a Kalenjin wife. The second born was a girl. She also studied up to “O” level, and was married to a nice Kalenjin man.
My wife and I were thrilled with those developments, and loved our in-laws. They reciprocated by showering us with love and respect. Our grand children were growing up without the crisis of identity that negative ethnicity was about to unleash upon us unexpectedly. To them, they were simply citizens of Kenya, neither virulently Kikuyu nor Kalenjin. They spoke both languages.
All this time I never once visited Murang’a, except to bury my parents when they died. As the years passed, any nostalgia I had of my former homeland evaporated, leaving only faded memories like wispy tendrils of smoke that dissipate in the air.
My third born son was admitted to the University of Nairobi. This was the first time for him to travel outside the Rift Valley.
The problems that would shake our nation to the core started in 1990.That year, under pressure from the West, President Moi, a Kalenjin, agreed to introduce multiparty politics. From the look of things, the opposition was headed for a landslide victory.
To avoid the Kikuyu in the Diaspora (Rift Valley) voting for Kikuyu candidates, it is said that his administration fanned anti-Kikuyu sentiments in the region. In the build up to the 1992 election, Kalenjin youth rose up against the Kikuyu in Rift Valley, accusing them of taking their land. A few people were killed.
The veneer of my comfortable world in my adopted land was showing cracks. This ethnic violence was to assume a cyclical nature, every five years to subsequent elections.
In 1997, it got so bad that I decided to sell my land in the countryside and move to Eldoret town. It was more secure in town. But I am a farming man, I know no other life. The move to town was terrible for me.
The relations between the Kikuyu and the Kalenjin were now frosty, the violence lurking just beneath the surface, waiting for a spark to set it off. I was now an old man, past eighty years. My children were all grown up and had families of their own. I had achieved what I set out to do when I left Murang’a in 1942, but I could sense danger. Danger that was far, far worse than bwana Kiboko’s whip at the apex of a temper tsunami.
On the eve of the 2007 elections, Rumba Kimani, my first son, arrived at our house with ominous news. Unknown people had circulated leaflets asking Kikuyu to leave immediately. We underestimated what was to come.
I had never expressed any interest in politics, but I did feel a mounting disquiet as announcements of the election results was delayed for three days, amid building tension and high voltage accusations of rigging among the politicians.
We woke up to mayhem on January 30th .Screams rent the air, and palls of smoke could be seen in the horizon. Rumba Kimani staggered into the compound, a gaping wound dripping blood from his shoulder.
“They arrived at our house at six in the morning,” he whispered, all but incoherent, as we attempted to stem the flow of blood.
“Who?” I asked.
“About one hundred Kalenjin raiders.”
“Did you recognize them?” I asked my bleeding son.
“I recognized many of them. Some of them were my neighbors who are good friends. I used to supply Kiprono’s family with milk on credit. His wife was in the same women’s group with my wife in our local church,” he answered, disbelief written in his tortured face.
“Kiprono looked me in the face and told me to leave, and never come back. He told me to leave my wife, who is a Kalenjin, and my children, saying that they belong to them,” Rumba sobbed. The sight of a adult man weeping is disconcerting.
“Woooiii Ngai,” my wife cried. What is the world coming to? Kiprono was the best man at Rumba’s wedding.”
We didn’t have enough time to analyze the events. A few minutes after Rumba’s arrival, we heard a crowd approaching from a distance, chanting war cries and baying for blood. I knew that this was it, and we fled towards the police station. Looking behind us, we saw a group of warriors, worked up to a frenzy like a park of rabid dogs. As we watched they set upon an old man, hacking him into pieces as he begged for mercy. The last thing we saw before turning the corner was the warriors pouring petrol on our house and setting it a blaze.
At the police station, we found about one thousand people who like us, had fled from their homes. They told horror tales of burnt houses, friends and relatives hacked to death, women raped and children taken from screaming mothers and beheaded.
Over the next five days, people kept streaming in, many with ghastly wounds inflicted by the vicious marauders. The police were overwhelmed by the number of raiders. They could only offer some form of protection at the police station itself.
“I saw bodies rotting in the fields, bloated and stiff with rigor mortis. I saw Peter’s dog eating his rotting body outside his house. The whole village was engulfed with the putrescent, sickly sweet smell of death”, one woman wailed. “The end of the world has come.”
“We were attacked by about five hundred raiders. We took refuge at the church in Kiambaa”, said a young man with an arrow sticking out of his thigh. “We were about three hundred of us in the church. Then they locked us from the outside, poured petrol on it, and burnt us alive. We were three hundred of us inside. Only twenty of us escaped. The rest were burnt alive.”
When the politicians signed their peace agreement, we were moved from the police station to a camp hurriedly set up for the internally displaced people, one of many in the Rift Valley and Central province, the areas where the worst violence had happened.
Mzee Mburu Kimemia tells me this story, his back hunched and aged, wizened face lined with the pain of a lifetime.
“I set off from Murang’a in December of 1942, worked for bwana Kiboko and saved enough to buy land from him when he left the country. Bwana Kiboko had taken the land from the Kalenjins, he is the one they should go after,” he laments.
“I purchased my land with hard earned money. Unlike the political elite, who own millions of acres in this country that they simply allocated themselves after independence. These warriors should be going after them, not the small people like us who works hard to pay for their land.”
We are sitting outside his tent in the internally displaced persons (IDP) camp outside Eldoret town. The ground is sodden from last night’s rain, and the inside of the tent is waterlogged.
Mzee Kimemia is sitting on a rough stone, and his wife Monica is sitting on a tin that had contained a donation of dry maize from the Red Cross. If Mzee Mburu could cry, he would, but his plumbing long since dried up with age and the tears can no longer flow.
His right hand is scooping githeri as his toothless gums struggle to crush the grains. It reminds him of a similar meal he had in December of 1942, when he announced to his wife that he was leaving in search of a better life.
“But now there is nowhere left to go. I cannot go back to my people in Murang’a. I haven’t seen them in sixty years. Technically speaking, they are no longer my people. I am a stranger to them,” he sighs.
“There is no hope left. We are refugees in our own country”, he summarizes, glazed, ancient eyes staring into the far distance, just like that day in 1942. His gnarled fingers, wrinkled and bent with arthritis, scoop another mouthful of githeri.
I have heard that both sides are now arming themselves with guns from neighboring Somalia and Southern Sudan. Like Mzee kimemia, I see no hope for us.