Tuesday, 10 June 2014

On Being Twenty Eight

In a few months I will turn 28. Now this is a milestone. You see 28 is that age when you realize that you are old. You could safely be called a sage, and wear that title like a badge of honour. 

But this realization has hit me hard, like an early morning slap. The kind my grandma gave to clear the cobwebs out of your eyes. 

Ten years ago, I read about 28 being the best age to get your first kid. It was in one of those lifestyle magazines; could have been any: SatMag, True Love etc. but that point of wisdom stuck. I promised myself then, as an 18year old that I’d go to college (that was sheer faith and a little arrogance and ambition) graduate at 24 and work for four years as I improve the conditions back at home then get myself a baby with a pretty damsel somewhere. But there is no baby in sight. 

I now realize that even when I get to 28, I will still be 27 and 26, and 25, and 24, and 23, and 22, and 21, and 20….you get the drift… and 15, and 14, ….and 10 and 9….and 5 and 3…and 1. 

Sometimes I’m two and I babble and play myself silly. I sit on the floor of my small house; I lie down and crawl about. I drift back to the period my mum minded me, and I feel the pain of a gentle slap when I bit her tit as I suckled, looking straight in to her eyes. 

Sometimes I am five, walking in shorts with both hands in the pocket. I remember my mum telling me of the nice shorts my father made for me when I was younger. I have a shiny mark on my forehead. Mum said it was the shorts that brought it. I fell down the stairs and rolled all the way down, the hands in the pockets not useful at all. 

Sometimes I am twelve. Sitting with my father in his workshop. Seeing him cut fabric into pieces. Many pieces. He joins the pieces together beautifully. He works and the music of the Singer Sewing machine rings in my mind. The customers come and the smiles on their faces tell me they are satisfied. I learn that good work is well rewarded. When he goes to town to get more work I hold brief for him, driving his machine and helping him with padding for the jackets. “Fundi ametoka kidogo tu, anarudi saa hii,” is all I say to everybody who asks. I sneak a few repairs in between and make some pocket money. He never knows; but he suspects and teaches me the best way to perform basic repairs. 

Sometimes I am 18 and all my friends have girlfriends but I don’t. My first girl happens to be older than me. She’s come back to school. She’s a class behind me. I like her. She likes me and we like one another. I believe she’s very beautiful. I don’t know what to do with her but I write her a few love letters. That’s all I can do. I sit my exams and we lose contact and that’s it. 

Sometimes I am twenty and all big and grown up. In college. Post freshman. Have an Afro haircut. Believe that everything is going to be alright. I read a lot. I scribble stuff sometimes. Have a closely knit group of friends. A long distance relationship. Singing in a church choir. Enjoying everything there is about life. Generally well. No worries. 

But at 28, and a sage. Life’s unpredictable. Milestones achieved are several. The only thing remaining is a baby.  I don’t even know if my seeds are viable. But this baby thing remains on my mind for a long time. I should stop reading magazines at 28. 

Inspired by ‘Eleven' by Sandra Cisneros

Friday, 24 January 2014

A Song for 'Madam'

She sat among the smiling faces awaiting the governor’s hiring pen. A big occasion it was for her and several other recruits into this program. The county government of Homa Bay had hired about nine hundred Early Childhood Education (ECDE) teachers and he was personally presenting the appointment letters on this event.

But as she sat there, among teachers some younger than her own sons and daughters, she experienced a mixture of emotions. 

I remember the conversation we had on the day she got the interview notification.
“You know I have been called to interview for a job at county headquarters?”  She mentioned in passing as if she would never go there anyway.  

“But you have the experience, the papers. They have no reason to deny you a job,” I told her.
“But I am turning fifty next year, how many years will I work?”
I did not need to answer that because it wasn’t meant to be answered. 

Here she was, with about five years left to teach (legal retirement age is 55). The elusive government job that she had been waiting for had finally arrived but a little bit too late. She wasn’t sure whether to be happy or indifferent. 

About twenty years of teaching had gone by. Eaten away by aggressive employers in various private schools around the country. In the capital city, in small towns around Kenya and in the village, where she had since somewhat ‘retired.’ 

The best years of her life had been sapped up nursing young children, teaching them how to hold a pen, leading them through their ABCs and rejoicing when the young ones eventually started their journeys of academic discovery. 

But more than that, she had achieved much success in the National music festivals with children barely seven years old. She has to her credit several certificates of merit, several trophies which she collected in her illustrious tenure but at 50 and her best years beyond her, she has got a job with the government, finally. 

This is my song to the selfless efforts of all the ECDE teachers. Like my mother whose story is briefly told ECDE teachers have been neglected by successive governments in employment. 

They are eachers who toil in the shadows but are never credited with success of children in a country that glorifies success in National exams. 

While there has been much talk about employment by the Teacher’s Service Commission over the years, this has never happened.  

I remember countless times when calls were made, seeing my mum rush to District Education offices but nothing ever came out such. It was always a story, and another. 

Every teacher looks up to absorption by the government, and so do most of the ECD teachers I know. They would do anything to get a job, with all the benefits it comes with; both real and perceived. 

Nobody will doubt the importance of ECDE teachers to the school system but the type of treatment they have received from powers that be, has been worst at best. 

And so I was incensed when the Knut chairman recently dismissed the efforts made by county governments to hire these teachers. Knut does not represent ECDE teachers and has never fought for them. If they did fight for them, things would have been different. 

And if performance in public schools can be attributed to poor foundations, then we all know where the shoe has been pinching from. County governments will offer hope, to several people with certificates and diplomas who have the passion to work with children. 

As the 50year-old gets to work, it is with pleasure, I can bet. She will shape more lives and inspire more children, setting them up for the best that will come after. 

Five years may not be a long time, but it will definitely be a dream come true for her. The fortunes are changing and Kenyans will wait a few more years to reap the benefits of this noble initiative.

Tuesday, 21 January 2014

Letter to Binyavanga Wainaina

Dear Binyavanga, 

I was stupefied when they said you came out. You see, to me you have always been out here. At Kwani? Open Mic, at The Sunday Salon, at UoN during Chimamanda Ngozi lecture, at many forums even on #TheTrend you were out. 

Your genius; which I have felt and seen has been out here, with me. I admit I haven’t read your memoir but that ‘lost chapter’ has given me a glimpse of what terrific writing awaits me to gobble. Perhaps when you see this you will hand me down a copy? Just Kidding. 

But Binya, you and I know that you have done a lot to Kenya and to a larger extent Africa by your industriousness. Your eccentric personality and your ability to stir things up have seen Kwani? rise. And rise. Ten years later, Yvonne Owuor’s novel Dust has captured the tragedy of our country’s silence and the sanitized history that has been slowly fed down our masses that suffer selective amnesia.
So when somebody says you came out, where have they been? 

Honestly I swear, I am thoroughly impressed by how this has gone. I imagine James Baldwin in that novel “Go Tell it on the Mountain” explaining how awkward it was seeing boys in the washrooms and feeling a surge. A flicker. Then a glow. Then a fire that he couldn’t put off. And knowing quite well how the society would treat him if he said who he was. Then deciding to keep to himself in a prison for himself and by himself. Things changed later, but his society and ours are centuries apart.  (It’s been a long time since I read that text; I don’t have a copy for reference) 

But you Binyavanga has been like that for almost four decades! 

When I hear the phrase ‘come out’ I don’t think of it in that way. It takes me back to my grandpa’s shamba. To the seven days of waiting for my maize seeds to germinate from a small shamba given to me. I’d wait and count. Until the day I could see some yellowish leaves prick the soil and slowly rise from ground and out to go after the sun. They’d come out. 

I think about waiting for the sun to pierce the sky on a chilly morning to drive the cold away as I walked to school barefoot. And I think about the day when my grandpa and I waited, and waited as our cow lay there. Almost helpless. Then the head and a leg of our calf thrust out. And we pulled; then most beautiful black and white calf came out in what to me was just mucus. 

So when they say you came out. They haven’t been seeing you. I can’t imagine how free you now feel. How liberating must it be to know that you are now true to yourself! 

There are things we choose and there are those that choose us. So what if?
You are still the person I look at in awe. You are the writer I want to be.  I wish ‘I One Day Will  Write Like Binyavanga’ 

Otieno Owino.


Friday, 17 January 2014

Pain, Pleasure, Success

My first real taste of success was both sweet and painful. Having had a blissful childhood in the city, I was taken back to the village. My pre-primary education was good by any standards. My mum tells me that after that single year in nursery school I was able to join words and make out basic phrases. I would stutter but read some Kiswahili words well. 

My transfer to the village and the village school was therefore with a great advantage. In the village, during those days, most pupils were plucked out of homes and directly planted into class one. Nothing prepared you for anything you would do in school. In fact you would begin by first learning how to hold a pencil. Add all the other things like sitting on stones and writing on your lap etc. 

My first term exam results were among the best I ever posted. In several subjects I scored all the marks, in some I lost a few marks. But I got only 30 percent in the subject Mother Tongue. Even this could not stop me from being the best student in my class that term. 

The closing ceremony was an elaborate event. Singing, clapping and the entire fan fare of such an occasion. Since it was obvious that I would be feted, I asked my elder brother for advice on how best to walk to the podium and take my prize. 

“Walk briskly and smile. When you shake hands with the teacher, nod your head for some time,” he advised. I did just that. The applause that greeted me was overwhelming. My nodding was remembered for long and I got teased a lot for that later. 

But the shock was to come a while a later. My report form had to be withheld because I had not paid some fee or the other. I couldn’t take home my best possession. What pain that caused me!  I hung around our class teacher until he finished dishing out the forms. I was left alone with him and a few others but he still couldn’t give in to my pleas. 

I began to cry. He still couldn’t give me the report form. So I cried all the way until I met an uncle of mine who soothed me, took me back and made sure I got that report form. 

This has been a week where success stories have been so many. My secondary school classmate Junior Mireri wrote a riveting opinion piece on ODM elections for The People newspapers, a feat which he and few others who know where we come from can relate. 

In the global scene, our biggest Kenyan ambassador at the moment Oscar Award nominee Lupita Nyong’o continues to wow the world.

 Several Kenyans in Mogadishu are doing terrific work in Mogadishu. Listening to the Big Breakfast Show on Monday, and hearing the great work they are doing there, I wished I could take the next plane to visit Somalia. 

The overriding similarity in all these stories has been the determination, sheer hard work and vision of the people involved. To look far ahead and see yourself in a role, and to achieve that is perhaps the greatest measure of success. 

I am daring to dream. Dreams are the stuff that everything in the world comes from. Pleasure can take out all the pain.  

Friday, 10 January 2014

Who will save us from Negative Profiling?

I walked into the crowded flea market one  sunny afternoon. My business was simple, get a few curtains for my new house. 

I trudged around, stopping to admire and choose from selected stalls and open air exhibitions. Unimpressed, I moved further on until I finally came to a seller to whom I finally bought from.
As I continued choosing and putting back what I didn’t like, the seller stood by helping me on and getting me more of the types I wanted. 

I set some a side, checked them through again and started haggling for the prices. In a moment the seller was speaking to me in my mother tongue, though he wasn’t fluent and I knew he wasn’t from my ethnic community. 

Now, anybody who speaks to me in my first language instantly becomes my friend. We struck a rapport sooner and my curtains were safely packed at an even better discount compared to stalls I had earlier visited. 

A friend of mine recently lamented on social media that a taxi driver had continuously spoken to her in a language she couldn’t understand because of her looks. 

You see, my friend in question can pass for person from central Kenya even though she is from Western and the closest she has come to central province is Ruiru. 

Just after the Westgate attacks, members of the Kenyan community who wear buibuis were looked at with suspicious glances in public places. In fact it is alleged that fear gripped several passengers in a matatu in Nairobi when two passengers dressed in buibuis left a matatu just a few minutes before take off from a bus stop in Nairobi. 

Despite our collective zeal to be called Kenyans, a lot of profiling goes on everywhere you turn to in this country. For what benefit I am yet to fathom. When put to good use, profiling may not be bad at all but there is a lot of negative profiling that goes on in this country. 

It is not strange to hear people labeling young men in urbanite dressing spoilt brats. A person’s dressing cannot be the sole means of judging them. Perhaps it is just a way of their self expression and has nothing at all to reflect on their conduct. Until you interact with somebody you may never know who they truly are.
When somebody tells me Ujaluo utakua because I choose to be particular about what shirt goes with my trouser,  support Gor Mahia with all my means, and love all things beautiful in life, does he mean I should do otherwise?

I have Muslim and a few Kenyan Somali friends. They may be closely knit people but like all Kenyans, they want the best for this country. Why some profile and label them into potential terrorists because of isolated incidents which claim lives of even their own, I wonder what the Kenyan spirit is. 

Few people have fond memories of matatu touts; their lot has been disgraced beyond salvation. But few people acknowledge how helpful they can be especially when you don’t know where you are shuttling to especially in Nairobi. From Bulbul in Ngong to Number Ten in Mathare, it is the matatu tout who may help you get to your destination. So while they may be ‘bad guys’ there are a lot of good ones out there who will help you, willingly. 

We need each other in this country. After fifty years of living together as a nation, there is need for us to embrace one another. Our diversity need not be the spark that lights the fires of dissent but the light that guides us out of darkness into the bond of nationhood. 

Whenever I go back to the flea market, my first stop is with the friend who speaks my language. He always has something I need and refers me to stalls where I can get good deals for anything I want.

Thursday, 2 January 2014

Facing 2014

I was among the first four people in church on January 1, 2014. It has been ages since I celebrated New Year in the City. Most Adventists attend a church service in the morning of the 1st

In the village where I have always been on this special day since I turned 14, it is a different experience. Barring a night vigil on the night of end year, we wake up at cock crow, with our goats, chicken, vegetables and grains for the morning service. It is a service filled with bleating of goats and cackling of hens, rustling cash and other offerings brought to church in the chilliness of the morning. 

It is a morning oozing with optimism, warmth, thanksgiving and testimonies of the past year. There is a deeper intimacy to this in the village; a familiarity and a shared knowledge hard to come by in the city. 

As I sat on a spot I longed for in the last quarter of last year, near the pulpit on a higher seating position, other people trickled in, with family, and friends and we sang common hymns. “Great is thy faithfulness….O Lord my Father….”  And other hymns. Sweet voices.  Croaking voices. 

The service began an hour later. The huge church was building a quarter full. In the village even non members of church join services and it is always a full house on this day. A young boy of about ten years played the keyboard as we sang more songs. 

The pastor soon took to the pulpit. He rendered a six pronged sermon titled Facing 2014. 

Know what God that God holds you in his hands, “Behold I have graven thee upon the palms of my hands, thy walls are continually before me..”

Know what God has done for you in the Past “David said, moreover, the Lord that delivered me out of the paw of the lion and out of the paw of the bear, he will deliver me out of the hand of this philistine. 

Press forward “I press toward the mark for the prize of high calling of God in Jesus Christ…” 

Forget what is behind you because we have nothing to fear about the future unless we forget how the Lord has protected us in the past. “In the world ye shall have tribulations but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world…” 

Make a resolution to live for God If my people, which are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land…”

Leave every burden that holds you back from God. “Wherefore seeing we are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us and let us run with patience the race that is set before us…” 

We sang and prayed. Lined out and shook hands. Hundreds of hands. I think I have shaken enough hands for 2014. 

As we face this year a new beginning awaits us. It matters how we look at it, how you want to make it end. Just make the effort, I have decided to make more efforts. 

There was no selling of livestock outside our church building as it would have happened in the village. And less corruption of the rallying cry Happy New Year! with hapi ni eiya- your luck is in my stomach.