The response to yesterday’s piece has been surprisingly overwhelming. I have received – and still receives – a barrage of emails from people who are not only 28 but right up to 51. (If I haven’t responded to your email it’s because I haven’t gotten round to reading it, but I will and respond. Bear with me).
These emails were mainly from people who talk of their dead or dying dreams. People who whose ambitions have been slowed down by arthritis, accidents, bad decisions, economic factors, people who wish they had a chance to education, people who are financially free but whose financial freedom has killed their relationships, people who are stuck in Europe packing cereal in a factory but afraid to come back home because in their words they will look like failures amongst their family and friends and people who offered to pay for Tony’s counselling session to help him get back on track.
You write one blog post and the Pandora’s Box flings right open. At the end of it all, I realised, we are all Tonys*. We all carry burdens over our shoulders when we leave our houses. We are weighted by insecurities. We live in fear of confronting ourselves. Some of us overcome these, some of us sink. It’s stupefying. Thanks for writing in and sharing your stories.
At 10pm I received an email from a gentleman telling me his story. I liked it and asked him if I could run it and he said sawa. I asked him if I could run it with his real name or he prefered to be anonymous and he said his name is fine. The content of his story is stirring; it illustrates that race I was talking about jana. Maybe it will help someone.
His name is Njenga Kahiro. You hear guys in bars bragging that they started “from the bottom” and ati now they are here when they started from South C? Njenga started from the bottom- literally. The bottom of a pit latrine, to be precise. I hope Tony reads this and learns something from his journey.
I haven’t changed the language or tone of his email. Oh, and he turns 40 today, Happy Birthday, Njenga.
By Njenga Kahiro
Right off the bat, register me on the left hand side of your I-hate-Oyunga-Pala-fans list. Just below Jane Wambui and Peris Kibandi. That dispensed with, let me say I enjoyed reading you long post about life. And it got me thinking a lot about it. You see I am turning 40 tomorrow (or today depending on when you receive the email) and what a ride it has been and I ain’t done some shit yet. I couldn’t agree more with the stuff you mentioned, the silly and not so silly lists we make, the wait and miss, the aim and score moments and the dilemmas we all have living this life.
Like Tony*, our 28 year old (once he is out, he belongs to The Gang) I did make a list when I was freshly out of college. I was unbelievably optimistic and full of theories of how life works. And I knew I would be a philosopher King, a proper politician who actually cares for people. But before that I would join the army and serve my country. I was so patriotic; any mosquito biting me would immediately hum the national anthem. And then shit happened. It quickly dawned on me that no one gave a fuck how patriotic you were in ’99. If you came from the wrong part of the country, you let others be paid for being patriotic.
It took me a few months to transition from sweating patriotism to sweating real salty liquid digging toilets and water wells in Subukia. And fifteen feet below ground, with torn jeans shorts, stained off-white mutumba tee inscribed “Sun Over a beach” you don’t think about philosopher kings any more. You worry about real things like if Man Gitahi will drop a bucket full of soil on you and what a sorry epitaph that would make: “He died looking for water.” “He died creating a resting place for shit.”
There are only so many toilets you can dig in one village. The guy who advised that toilets should be deeper than 6 feet and the guy who designed the tractor tyre thread should be sent to ISIS. My mining and sanitation jobs forced me, when I was above the ground, to re-evaluate my earlier list. How is it possible that a guy with upper second was digging latrines? I was dealing shit jobs, in an obscure village that Prof. Akonga (see I had to drop that name, he is the only Luhya who can pronounce avuncular) could identify on a map. But good things happen and sometimes good advice is shit. If you find a guy digging a pit latrine do not tell him – If you find yourself in a hole, stop digging. For fucks sake, deeper means more cash. And as my people say mbeca ni mbeca (cash is cash), who are you to look a 500 hundred bob note with a bad eye?
Back to my dilemma. You are passing through Nairobi two years after college, your hands so calloused from all the mining and sanitation jobs you have endured that people mistake you for mukurino because you are avoiding shaking hands and just when you are about to board Mololine back to Nakuru, a familiar voice shouts your name: “Kahiro, niaje?”You turn and confirm that indeed the devil is a liar. The Philosophy major who drank half the time and whose grades belonged to the Defence League is in sharp suit, all clean cut and smiling like behind you is the camera shooting “O happy Days.” Besides him is that chick. You know her. She told you to stick to your lane, yes, near the students centre without actually uttering a word.
They are evidently doing well. They tell you that they work for a major electrical supplies company and that’s why they are in Nyamakima. Their cars are parked in less congested streets. You share banter and write down their number. Shit you don’t even own a phone two years after graduation. For those born the other day, owning a phone back in the day required one to make a strategic plan, run a complicated algorithm and face Mt Kenya two times a day and run round a Mugumo tree anti-clockwise once with a change to clockwise after 286 degrees.
With your calloused hands you head back to Nakuru and you don’t speak to anyone all the way and not because you don’t want to but you are trying to see where things went wrong and of course the son of Satan behind the wheel is driving like crazy. Isn’t it amazing that matatus can actually drive at 100kph and still get to Nakuru? Pre-Michuki matatus had a speed limit too, the lower limit which was like 150kph.
You get to Nakuru and try sending letters to the editor. You want to vent how shit this country is treating its talented young people. You have a total sample of two. You and perhaps that other guy being mistreated at Subukia Day. You get one letter published and you are overjoyed reading it on a borrowed newspaper at Mkulima’s newsstand. You photocopy the letter to the editor at the local bookshop and let the girl behind the counter know you are the author. She smiles at you and gives an extra copy (like you need it) and before the week is over, you are a celebrity in a town of 436 people. And it feels good.
A small NGO is setting shop in the town and they require a local organizer, a person ready to get their hands dirty. You tell them you work underground and your hands are permanently dirty. They like your vibe but they want a Forestry guy not a fucking anthropologist. You raise your game and convince them that anthropology is the holistic study man, forestry is just one subtopic. They hire you as a volunteer, unpaid. You are happy, you have a day job digging latrines and a side hustle organizing villagers to rehabilitate an important water catchment. You are giving it your all and you are actually enjoying it, working for free. It soon shows and they send you for training. You encounter fish fingers, strategic plans, budgets, sneers from more polished colleagues but you are so happy you are in the happening work that nothing is going to piss on your parade (who came up with that?).
Soon you are offered your first real pay, three and half years after graduation. You go to Subukia Shrine and give thanks. A nice girl comes along and with your still calloused hands; she becomes your friend, then your wife. Another dilemma comes in. Did I marry too early, too late? Will I be a good father, a good husband? Will I bring up this family on this salary? You go back to Subukia Shrine and miracle happens. After waiting for many years, the cellphone service finally comes to your neighbourhood and overnight you become Fundi wa Simu.
Safaricom and Kencell (I forget what it is called now) are selling their phones locked to the network. From your mining and sanitation business savings you purchase a computer, you convince Maru on Kenyatta Avenue to teach you unlocking the bloody phones and he sees something in your eyes and he agrees but not before you cough up. You go back to Subukia and advertise from all corners. Soon there is a line outside; you bring in the wife to help with selling cards while you handle the more important business of giving freedom to phones and their owners. Life is good. Junior is on the way. Dilemma again. Will I spend my life unlocking phones which is illegal anyway! You continue to volunteer (without pay) at the forestry place. You are now 28. Exactly like our chap, Tony.
You make a list again. You burnt the first one, half the shit didn’t happen but you are glad stuff you didn’t write happened. While volunteering you go to Nanyuki and fall in love with the mountain. You live the safety and beauty of the small town and move to a town with a reputation, a bad reputation that musicians (kikuyu ones) make songs and money out of. You are a pioneer, unlocking phones and repairing them. You have acquired an electronics degree from Mtaa University. You can solder the smallest of the ICs and your hands are steadier than Ben Carson’s. Soon the British Army soldiers discover that unlocking their phones in Kenya is a way cheaper than back in the UK. They come in droves. You even get to meet your old collegemate Dickson Migiro. He speaks with London Posh. Life is good. You even start cursing a lot more, sometimes with a Scottish accent. Bad Influence Douglas MacMillan.
Your hands are less calloused but your eyesight is not as good, you are concentrating too much on soldering ICs and repairing PCB Boards. During downtime you are teaching computers and fiddling with internet. You discover new interests. Accidently you come across a hot new field – Geographical Information Systems and you are hooked but you don’t know shit yet and those gatekeepers of the GIS Holy Grail let you know that but you are determined to hack it.
You study so hard, on your own, on bootleg software until the aforementioned gatekeepers finally to let you put your foot on the door. Cambridge University comes calling. They are looking for a guy ready to get their hands dirty. Mine are permanently dirty. I am soon out of town with a pay-cut that makes Missus very mad. She cannot understand how you leave your own business with Johnnies still willing to come unlock phones to go chase after elephants. I also don’t know how but I love the freedom that riding a bike in the vast plains of Laikipia bring.
I think on those long rides and I make a list. I am 32.
- Ian is 7 years, he should stop being the acting last born
- Climb Mt. Kenya
- Finish a Masters
- Stop paying rent (what’s the obsession with this one)
- Travel the world
Today I am 40. Ian is no longer the acting last born, Vanessa took that spot. I climbed Kilimanjaro then Mt. Kenya, I did a masters and graduated top of the class and I finally got a passport. And I have played foota with Usain Bolt.
And I am making another list. I am going to Bhutan (Oyunga Pala must have mentioned it) and I will write more often about the shit that happens when you look after elephants and I will jump from a plane when the sky diving guys in Diani offer a discount. And I will request Safaricom to bring Taro Hakase for the Jazz Festival. I reformed after all, I no longer unlock your phones.
What have I learnt after 40 years? Life happens at the pace of life. Biggest lesson? Mungu yuko.
Njenga Kahiro is the Programs Director for Zeitz Foundation (www.zeitzfoundation.org). He’s based on Segera Ranch in Laikipia.