OF CALAMITY By Sammy Mwiti
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CHILD OF CALAMITY
By Sammy Mwiti
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Click here if you'd like to exchange critiques
CHILD OF CALAMITY
By Sammy Mwiti
The air was thick with the scent of roasting meat when Jomo stepped out of his room into the cold and mean ambience of the night. Coupled with the aroma of delicious, traditional delicacies like ugali and irio, the flavor of fresh food was so fulfilling, almost suffocating. With so much to eat and drink, he thought it was odd for him to be having poor appetite.
It was time to party in celebration of the young man’s triumphant transition to manhood. After a month’s seclusion in a tiny, mud-walled hut where he nursed the wound inflicted by circumcision, this was going to be his first encounter with the outside world. Therefore, the feel of fresh air was so sweet and captivating.
Venturing outside, he felt elated. This mood of profound joy was also reflected among the excited crowd that chatted, partied and occasionally, scuffled for the free food and drinks. Jomo knew that he had an obligation to greet each and every person that had attended the party hosted in his honor. The young man was also pleased to see his waachia or age mates who--- like Jomo-- had similarly been initiated into manhood. Among those present was Jack, his rival in class, Alfred, the son of the local pastor and Tom, his best friend. It was a pleasant surprise to see Gloria, the lithe and chocolate complexioned daughter of The Headmaster, whose beauty had almost driven him crazy.
Since it was still dark, a fireplace had been established outside his house. It provided a welcome source of warmth and cushion against chilly weather. With its flickering lights, the flames illuminated the vicinity brilliantly. Sitting by the fireside, he watched with keen amusement as his first cousin Julius, oversaw the burning of the rags of clothes that Jomo had worn in his boyhood.
“You have graduated from wearing tatters and henceforth, you should always be decently dressed,” Julius told him.
By dawn, the home was swarming with relatives and friends from far and wide. Coinciding with the first day of the New Year, this ceremony was also meant to bring the family together, if only once in a year. In the festive mood, foes turned into friends and a family that only the previous week seemed as divided as life is to death shunned their differences, devouring plates of ugali and beef stew in merriment. They sang and danced to popular Meru folk songs as Kamunde, a professional drummer manipulated his instruments, raising the tempo to a crescendo.
Years later, on the verge of starvation and death in Kenya’s capital of Nairobi, he was to remember this event with great nostalgia. It went down in history as the only time in his life a party had ever been held in his honor.
In his new clothes that comprised of grey kaki trousers and a white shirt with blue stripes he looked very smart. But, his North Star shoes were ill fitting and he had to stuff the front part with exercise book papers which were irritating to the toes. Because he had been instructed to walk stiff “like a soldier in a marching parade,” he felt slightly uncomfortable, especially if he had to make quick movements. But he hoped that with time, the paper lining in his shoes would become softer. What’s more, he thought, he was surely growing in size and eventually the new boots would not pose a problem.
“You are a total man now and we as a family are proud of you,” explained Uncle Mwenje.
“Thank you,” replied Jomo as he accepted the gift of a T-shirt from him.
“You now hold your destiny in the palms of your hands”
The young man did not know exactly what this meant, but Mwenje went on.
“I must also warn you that as a man life is very fragile,” he said, turning philosophical. “You must handle it with care.”
Although he was not talented academically, Mwenje had a gift for social analysis and quite often, his predictions came true. But now he was drinking a concoction of local brew and Jomo was worried that his uncle might be intoxicated.
“The toils of your labor will determine the kind of food on your dinner table as well as the roof over your head,” Mwenje said, holding the young man affectionately.
“You should also know that unless you work very hard you stand no chance of ever marrying a beautiful woman” Mwenje cautioned, prompting the young man to suppress a yawn.
The irony of Mwenje’s marriage situation was not lost on Jomo. His uncle, who was poor, always made a big deal of his family, blaming his ugly wife for all the misfortunes that befell him. He despised his children, saying they did not look like him and were as “foolish as their mother.” When he made some money and spent it in the local bar, he would accuse her of financial embezzlement and when he fell sick, he faulted the wife for not taking good care of him.
It never occurred to Mwenje that he was actually the one to blame for his misfortunes. In school, he was never a clever student despite his belief to the contrary. He had repeated twice for his primary leaving exams and when he attempted to sit for it the third time, the school’s headmaster Mr. Ndubi discouraged him terribly. Moving his hands in a gesture of despair, Mr. Ndubi noted sarcastically: “Why can’t you try something else, like growing tobacco?”
Indeed, he took the advice seriously, working briefly as a laborer in a tobacco estate managed by the giant cigarette multinational corporation, the British American Tobacco (BAT). Perpetually reeking of tobacco and with no fortune to his name, he married a fellow school dropout whose family had been associated with witchcraft.
Circumcision came with its own rewards and challenges. Among the other labels that Jomo acquired during the one-month period of isolation was the crown title, District Commissioner (DC). In this part of Mount Kenya, the DC was held in great esteem. It was the title reserved to the foremost authority in the region and during the colonial period, a DC had powers similar to those of God. It was the era of British imperial rule when being white was akin to being right and the white DC had the rights of total control over the lives of all residents under his/her jurisdiction.
When the colonial administration ended, the DC’s powers were whittled somewhat but this did not stop the newly circumcised young men from claiming titles they did not necessarily have. Warriors all, they saw themselves as the vanguard of their generation. Authority vested on the latter day DC included—and not limited—to the power to wage wars against the village and the tribe’s real or imagined enemies, the right to fornication and other pleasures of life including beer drinking and chewing the leaves and stalks of the green and mildly narcotic plant called khat or miraa.
Most important however, circumcision heralded the entry into the secondary school; where boys wore Bond 007, a brand of cheap underpants and spoke in English. As a boy, Jomo was a very promising young man. To his grandfather Mzee Hatari, the “son of my son” as he liked to call the boy, was destined to fulfill an ancient prophecy by the founding father of their Baite clan, the legendary paramount chief Mukindia M’. Marete, whose death wish was to have one of his great grandchildren master the ways of the white man and rule the country the way the King of England had presided over Kenya during the colonial period.
“From your toes to the hair on your head, you resemble that old man, a person of great wisdom and courage,” Mzee Hatari told his grandson Jomo.
“You cannot afford to let us down especially in secondary school where we hope that you will bring all the medals home.”
“You know of course that as a man, you are not supposed to cry, never to shed a tear even when the whole world seems to be crumbling right at your feet, you understand?”
“I guess so”
“It is not a matter of guessing, it is the custom and law as decreed by your ancestors”
“Wherever you go, and whatever you do, you should never forget where you came from.”
Listening to his grandfather’s advice, Jomo wondered if this was the appropriate time to discuss such matters. Having celebrated his initiation only recently, he wanted to savor the moment, feel and act like a real DC and not ponder over grave issues about clan, tribe and nation.
Jomo was proud to join the ranks of DCs. Recalling the night he underwent the circumcision rite, he thought how he felt singularly unsuited for the ordeal. At 13, he looked very small, even malnourished. Pencil thin, with limbs that seemed to hang precariously from his shoulders, he also had eyes that seemed bigger than their sockets, giving him a comical look like a character in a cartoon book. And when he spoke, his voice was a child’s- hardly the man he was expected to be at that age and certainly, a poor apology for a future leader. He was known in school as the boy with oversize pants--- that were, in fact, a present from a rich aunt whose children no longer needed them. Torn and discarded, they had been passed to him as a Christmas gift.
To Jomo, however, initiation meant other things. It signaled freedom, and escape. Born into a miserable, extended family that was known mostly by the number of fisticuffs and blows that were exchanged whenever there was a conflict, Jomo had grown to detest his surroundings.
His father had died in a road accident when the boy was only 9 months old. After traveling for nearly 300 kilometers from Nairobi, he died only ten kilometers away from home when the minibus he was traveling in veered from the main highway, plunging into a river valley. The scene of the accident was a well known black spot. All 50 passengers on board perished in the tragedy.
“He had not seen you since you were born and so he was traveling to meet you for the first time,” His mother Gladys had explained, tears caressing her face.
“We do not know why the Lord decided to take him away from us before he could meet you.” She was widowed only two years after getting married to Jonathan, a police constable working in the remote, north eastern part of the country called Wajir and inhabited by Kenyans of Somali descent. A month before he died, Jonathan had written home, saying he was anxious to visit the family and meet his new baby. A homecoming party in his honor had therefore been arranged and when the news of his demise reached the family, the entertainment party quickly turned into a funeral ceremony.
Since then, the child had known no peace. A dispute over ancestral land had degenerated into a major family feud that had pitted his mother against the other family members. If they were not quarreling over barren plots of land, the family members would literally be splitting hairs over whose daughter had the bigger breast, or why X and Y’s chickens had a propensity to stray into “my compound.”
The initiation ceremony also meant an escape from the dusty bowl village, stacked in the rural interior of Kenya’s semi-arid Eastern province, Matata village seemed an afterthought of a settlement and a great environmental disaster. The monotonously bare and uninspiring landscape was remarkable for its poor red soil, interspersed with the specter of smooth and shiny balls of rocks that legend attributed to evil spirits whose stoning mission was repulsed by the ominous wail of a lone monkey in the middle of the night.
Also called the Sahara, due to its dusty and hot climate akin to the largest desert in the world, the remote village was isolated from the rest of the county by the poor road network and the prevalence of a rare strain of malaria; a disease that turned its victims’ skin color into a pale green before finally sending them into a coma from which they never recovered.
The month of December was an important period in the calendar of the village, and indeed in the whole country. It was the season to separate the chaff from the wheat; the moment mature boys had to face the knife. With Jomo and his age mates the time for circumcision seemed to have come so soon. They were all tiny boys, the oldest aged only 14.
Like cows headed for the slaughter, they were hounded out of the homes and then herded into a secret compound adjacent to a fresh but mighty river. Here, in the full glow of the moonlight, they took the plunge into the depths of the water and when they emerged, their exposed bodies were as cold as ice. They were confronted by an old man who performed the painful, but necessary operation with surgical precision.
To the uninitiated, the procedure remained a mystery. In school, one story that commonly circulated was that at the moment of reckoning, an angel would descend seemingly from the sky, wrestle the victim to the ground, and when the operation was over, he would vanish as if into thin air. Another story that did the rounds was that the procedure involved a blunt object, probably a scythe and when ‘the cut’ was in progress, victims bled into a terrible state of unconsciousness.
It was a tale that sent a chill down the spine of all the boys, turning erstwhile bullies into miserable, cowering characters as soon as the subject was mentioned. Yet the optimists had also had their turn, regaling potential candidates with tales about a beauty queen who would seduce the boys into bed and in the moment of high excitement, the transition from boys to men would take place, heralding a world of sheer fantasy and happiness galore.
Jomo was not sure which story to believe. He had approached his grandmother, hoping that the old woman would reveal the secret to him. “Wait until your turn comes,” is all the Grandma could say, dismissing the boy’s pleading as an act of juvenile curiosity. He could not ask his Grandpa because as an adult male who had undergone a similar rite, he was sworn into secrecy.
However, he knew that this rite had a special place in the hearts and minds of men, and in his people’s history. He noticed, for instance, that the annual ceremony coincided with the harvest season and that there would therefore be plenty of food for the boys whose turn it was to become men. Consequently, recently initiated young men emerged from recuperation baby-faced and with a confident swagger. Handsome and athletic in frame, they were the envy of all the girls.
Now that he had gone through it all, he felt like the heavyweight-boxing champion of the world. He was not alone. At the local shopping center, the newly initiated youths assembled regularly to flaunt their new looks and talk with pride and optimism about the future. Joining the group for the first time, Jomo was inevitably, the focus of attention. He was showered with praises for excelling in the exams and being admitted to the leading secondary school in the country.
But at exactly 7 PM when Prime Time News was broadcast on the radio, the mood for celebration came to an abrupt halt when the young men joined their fellow villagers to listen to the news program. “The Minister for Home Affairs today cautioned that the country is in the grip of a famine. At least 11 districts of the country will be severely affected as the national stocks dwindle and the government adopts serious measures to cope with the situation.” The report went on to say that students in boarding schools might be also affected temporarily but there was no need to panic since the government was engaged in consultations with donor partners to avert a crisis. “The government is considering whether to declare the crisis a national disaster,” the statement concluded.
A pregnant silence ensued. Then, as if taking a cue from an automated command, the normally noisy and boisterous group that gathered outside the leading retail shop in the market place at this time of the evening scattered abruptly, their silhouettes dissolving quietly in the dark cover of the night. Meanwhile, the radio station assumed its regular programs with a signature tune that featured an advert by East African Industries, promoting Blue Band, a well known butter product: “The family is well fed when Blue Band is applied on bread,” it proclaimed.
Unknown to Jomo, there had been mounting concern in the province and the country over looming food shortages. During his one month of convalescence, a food crisis precipitated by consecutive rain failure had been growing. It was exacerbated by increasing water shortages, as the local river dried up, sapped to the core by the relenting sun.
River Mutuati was the prime source of water in the locality and beyond. The river had two tributaries; the first one called Ibaru flowed eastwards and supplied water to three small villages with an estimated 200 inhabitants. The other tributary, which borrowed its name from Matata village, flowed in the southerly direction where the bulk of the inhabitants of the sprawling village of 800 people lived.
It would have been impossible to think of the village without the river. In this rural part of the country, time had stood still. What was taken for granted in other localities like running---or tap---water remained literally, a pipe dream here, so was the luxury of electricity. When you asked the villagers what the government was doing for them, their stock response was very cynical. “Seri kali? Is that the name of a dead ancestor or a well-known criminal lynched in public?”
The river was a close ally simply because government attempts at provision of water supply were met with dismal failure. For instance, a highly publicized water project was still a non starter years after every household was asked to make a 1000 shillings contribution to the project. The residents obliged and in fact went a step further to offer assistance in digging the trenches where the pipes were to be laid and taps installed in every home. However, during the last phase of the project called “Water for all” a government official who was in charge of the project quit the public service in mysterious circumstances. Today, the pipes are still buried where they were planted---a white elephant, if ever there was one!
Hence, loyalty to the ancestral river remained. Its attributes were said to be special, magical. In the years of yore, people came from distant hills and valleys to drink its substance, believing that these waters had a cure for impotence and an assortment of other illnesses including rabies, flu and skin rashes.
For Jomo the attachment was sentimental. Fetching water after school for his mother’s kitchen needs, it is here that he met daily with Gloria the princess of the village whom he had vowed to marry, “when I become a man.” He had told her severally how beautiful she was. One day when he attempted to plant a kiss on her lips, she resisted vehemently, telling him to wait. “You have to become a man first then the kisses will be flowing freely like the waters of this river,” she said, meaning that Jomo had to be circumcised before his romantic moves could be entertained. Although Gloria liked to make fun of Jomo’s body size, she still liked the boy because he was a star pupil in school and everyone thought he would make it to the medical school of the University of Nairobi and become a doctor.
Usually, when the afternoon session of the school ended, Jomo would be the first pupil to head to the river hoping to capture the attention of Gloria as soon as she went to the river. Sometimes, he would wait for several hours and when she failed to turn up, the smitten boy would walk the road to her home, keeping a vigil at the entrance to her compound until it was very dark and he was sure she had gone to bed.
Countless were the times that he lost the grip of the water container, a traditional gourd that he balanced delicately on his head. With his attention concentrated on Gloria, the gourd would fall, breaking into smithereens. This happened especially when Gloria was engaged in a conversation with other people, a situation that elicited a twinge of jealousy in the boy, making his whole body tremble. He hated to lie to his mother when she confronted him and demanded to know what happened to the cherished family gourd.
You should have seen the ashen look in his face as once more, Jomo pretended to be remorseful while lying to his mother: “Mom I tripled and fell down as I negotiated that bend near the river.” Not impressed with the answer, his mother would invariably respond with a slight rebuke, which implied that she too, had played such games when she was his age and therefore she knew what her mischievous son was up to.
During the weekend, the scene at the river basin resembled a crowded bazaar. Women, accompanied by children assembled along its banks to clean their cooking utensils and dirty linen. They swapped gossip, in addition to updating each other with interesting developments at the family, clan and tribe level. The teenage boys would meanwhile, be seen maintaining a close eye on the herds of cows, goats and sheep which drunk water from this river. The livestock also found fertile grazing grounds along the periphery of the river.
However, the previous three years had ushered uncertainty in the minds of all the residents who relied on River Matata. Following the destruction of a major swamp that buttressed the main river to pave way for human settlement, the tributaries downstream were greatly endangered. Initially, their waters appeared muddy, a situation that was blamed on the work of developers who cleared higher grounds in the vicinity of the swamp, depositing debris at the root of the river. The dumping clogged the water source and eventually, the tributaries were affected. And when the rains failed for two consecutive seasons, the water supply was reduced to a trickle.
“Our chief is conniving with the rich people to finish the whole village,” said Mwenje, referring to Senior Chief Tharambu who it was rumored, had—with the support of a corrupt local councilor—received kickbacks to allow some people to settle in what was actually meant to be a catchment basin. Efforts by local clansmen and elders to intervene to resolve the problem had failed. Poor and powerless, their attempt to block the work of developers was frustrated by the local administration.
Senior Chief Tharambu, a short and bulky caricature of man was a mysterious kind of person. Walking, he would sway this way and that; like an amateur dancer rehearsing for a crucial stage performance. He wore his chief’s uniform every day, including Sundays. That was meant to ensure his authority 7 days a week, his critics said. But nobody in the village could understand why tailors always failed miserably to make a shirt that could fully cover his big belly.
The result was that his lower abdomen was always exposed, making him a butt of jokes especially by women whose preoccupation with his anatomical details amounted to an obsession. They said that he was afraid of getting into contact with hot objects (including a cigarette) because he feared his body could easily be set aflame. The Senior Chief spoke fluent English and Kiswahili although he had never attended formal schooling. What’s more, the total number of his children was equally not known but it was no secret that he had sired babies with several different women.
Following the advent of the drought, his visibility increased. He would move from home to home, comforting the families devastated by the famine. And they were many. Within a short time, hunger had deeply penetrated the community. First to disappear from the market place was maize, the main food staple. For a while, people consumed the roots of cassava as a substitute before this too, was exhausted. The beans that were the main source of protein had vanished from the food table, long before the spread of the disaster. Cereals like millet and sorghum, popular for making porridge and bread were also very scarce. It was whispered that the chief preferred consoling affected families when the man of the house was absent. He would dole out gifts of maize flour (unga), milk and sugar to the suffering women in exchange for discreet sexual favors.
With the hunger for food biting painfully, people turned to spiritual nourishment. On Sundays, the churches would be full. The names of the religious denominations represented run the gamut of the Christian terrain in the country. Among these were Catholic, Anglican, Methodist, Presbyterian and the Salvation Army. In addition, millennialist cults mushroomed with a renewed fervor, their doomsday message gaining resonance within the community of hungry and angry souls who saw their only salvation in the world hereafter. In the history of Matata village, never had Jesus Christ attracted such a massive following.
It came as a big surprise to Jomo that all these developments had been kept a secret to him during his four-week period of convalescence. Apparently well fed and insulated against the turmoil in the outside world for one month, little did he know that a calamity of great proportions was unfolding right in his own backyard.
The weather was lousy as he returned home that night. A fierce thunderstorm ripped across the sky, turning the clouds into sparks of yellow and red whose reverberations created fear and panic in the big village. A heavy downpour followed and the young man doubled his pace to get home faster. Undeterred by the rain, he was preoccupied with thoughts about his admission to Alliance Boys High School, the top boarding school in the country. He thought how lucky he was to be soon leaving the village to join the cream of the country’s brightest students. He knew that Alliance was a ticket to a bright future. It guaranteed academic success and ultimately entry into the university after four years, and with a degree, thought Jomo, Matata village would be history.
He found his mother awake when he arrived home.
“You have been away for so long, Jomo, and I have been waiting to talk to you,” she spoke in a low, faltering voice, which alarmed him.
“You must not be spending too much time in the local market. It’s not a good habit for youths of your age.” She offered him a meal of yams and bean stew and as she uttered her words, a sudden gloom descended on her face.
“Anyway, I want to talk to you about a different issue,” she said, suppressing a tear that however, managed to slide down her smooth face. “I cannot afford to take you to high school. Due to the famine, the chief has imposed an embargo on the sale of grains and besides and if I sell what I have to raise your school fees, we would starve to death.” The young man covered his face with the palms of his hands, unsure if to cry or die.