We landed at Kisumu International Airport at 7am. Kisumu reluctantly stirred under a mild blanket of gray. She remained aloof and picturesque. Our driver, standing where a horde of taxi men congregated, held up a placard written “KCDF.” That was us. I convinced Jamo, the cameraman, that we had a moment to dash into town for a quick breakfast before we set off for the assignment in Usigu, Siaya County. I know a decent Swahili place in Kisumu’s sprawling Industrial area called Mafud that serves some truly champion brown chapos. It’s always been my ritual to have breakfast there if I arrive in Kisumu on that horrid dawn flight.
Mafud is a greasy spoon frequented by blue collar men who live off the toil of their roughened hands. It’s set behind a long block of warehouses. The tables are covered with cheap plastic sheets adorned with gaudy pictures of tropical fruits. If you are lucky you will get a seat by the large window which offers a view of the street outside where Kisumu moves on motorbikes and feet. I normally have chapos, coconut beans and masala tea. Their chapos are the size of a flying saucer. Jamo – as a typical Kuyu – had his chapos with beef stew. We ate soundlessly.
Melvine of KCDF had sent us out there. They – KCDF – were documenting stories about community asset building, endowment fund if you want, spanning close to ten years. This meant travelling across the country and interviewing selected beneficiaries. This was the last quarter of last year. We finished breakfast, bundled into the car and pointed towards Siaya.
Unbeknownst to us, we were going to meet poverty in Usigu.
When we arrived, our driver parked the car under a tree in a grassy fenceless compound where the lone Usigu Trust office stood. The only sound was a cow’s bell clanging as a herd grazed nearby, herded by a most listless man leaning on a staff.
A gentleman who introduced himself as Tom, the chairperson of Usigu Trust, met us with warm handshakes. He was dark and lean and had numerous creases around his eyes. He shook our hands like we are dignitaries. Like we were donors. I introduced Jamo, and then Tom led me into the office as Jamo hauled his equipment from the boot.
The office had one wooden desk and some chairs that I could tell were brought in specifically for our visit. Seated inside were four other officials. All senior citizens. They greeted me with importance and asked me how Nairobi was. People in shags are always asking you how Nairobi is. But who knows how Nairobi is? Hell even people in Nairobi can never really tell how Nairobi is.
Although briefed earlier by KCDF, I explained again why I was there. They nodded and murmured their approval – amiability is the hallmark of old age. The room was dark because there was no electricity. Light streaked through the open windows that also offered a view of a thicket fence and a cloudless sky. A curious yellow-necked sparrow perched on the window looked in with cocked head. Playing kids squealed somewhere the distance. There was no ceiling and the corrugated roof clicked, crackled and stretched in the heat. I suggested that perhaps we should move outside for the interview because of light and recording. They scrambled to their feet like school children. I felt like Khlestakov in Nikolai Gogol’s The Government Inspector. I was embarrassed.
Outside a few more people milled about. That’s the thing with Nyanza, when people see a vehicle in the village, chaps will come to inspect. A vehicle could possibly mean a handout. A handout means unga, and unga means a meal.
Jamo set up his camera on a tripod stand. I sat with my back to the camera and Tom sat in front me. Under a tree, a little away, four kids we were to interview, beneficiaries of KCDF, sat waiting. Two girls and two boys. They sat upright, their files in their laps. One girl had on a school uniform. She went to a local girls’ school and had been brought in for this meet. Her eyes sparkled with anticipation. I bet in a different setting she would be chatty. Next to her was a much older girl who, we learned later, had just finished a tailoring course in a local polytechnic. You could tell from her choice of clothing that the city had touched her. Next to her was a chatty confident boy, an A-student from a single parent who told me he wanted to become a pilot and I had no doubt he was going to be one.
Then I noticed the last boy. He didn’t look like the rest. He slouched slightly in his seat, as if he wanted the ground to swallow him. I suspected they had been told that some important persons from Nairobi were coming down to interview them and they needed to scrub up well and wear their best clothes.
His best clothes were in tatters. Faded. The shirt had different buttons, sewn together with different threads. His pants didn’t reach his feet. The lining of his trouser pockets were yellow, but his pants were brown, the brown of the earth, like when he wasn’t in them he folded them and kept them underneath the soil. The colour, of poverty, it struck me, is brown.
His feet fascinated me. They didn’t look like feet. They were once feet, now they were engorged and tough like the Nile crocodile’s tail. His toenails looked like pumice. You could tell his feet were not accustomed to shoes. He wore old bathroom sandals because that’s all he had. Those sandals were held together in some parts by wire. They were a size smaller but they were clean. You could tell that because they were told they had to look clean, he had taken the pleasure to scrub those old bathroom sandals clean. Instinctively, he tucked his feet under his chair. I don’t know why his old scrubbed sandals made me so sad.
His level of poverty went so many generations that even scrupulous hygiene couldn’t dignify it. He sat there with the rest of the needy kids without being part of this group, and he fiddled nervously with his tattered blue polythene file that contained all his dog-eared education credentials. He never looked up. I remember even when I went over to say hello, he avoided my eyes, as if he was embarrassed of the poverty on his back. Embarrassed that he was there with nothing, a nobody, bearing a tin for alms. He cast a very pitiful sight. But I knew he was the heart of the story.
Because the sun kept moving, Jamo kept moving us around while filming. We finally sat under a tree with this boy. “My name is Kennedy Olwana,” he said as we commenced the interview. But then he was so nervous. He fidgeted and he kept looking at the camera to see if he was saying the things he thought we expected him to say. And when Jamo told him to look at me, he looked like he had been admonished and apologised. His hands were shaking slightly. He had zero self-confidence. I mean zero. He was so intimidated by us, by our cameras and by him being there with his hat in his hand and he retreat further into himself, obviously bewildered by the attention anyone could give a poor orphan like him.
So I asked Jamo to stop recording for a moment. To make him relax I launched into small talk in luo, you know, trying to draw him out. He remained polite but distant.
Later, he told us his story.
His father died just before he was born. Which means he was born fatherless. His mom sold tomatoes in the local market and they lived in a small hut with his mom and elder sister. Then his mom passed on when he was eight years old and soon after his sister ran off with a man and got married across the lake. He was taken in by his grandmother and went to the local school then later joined high school. Because death keeps taking, because death is merciless, death visited their small humble hamlet and took away his grandmother when he was in Form 2. He told me he didn’t have any uncles or aunts to speak of and with his grandmother gone he was alone. He lived in his grandmother’s house until one day a strong wind took away the roof. (Yes, who said lightning doesn’t strike twice in one place?) He moved in with well-wishers while he attended school, supported by Usigu Trust and KCDF. When he finished school, he rented a small one roomed mud house on the outskirts of Usenge for which he pays 300 bob a month.
I asked him how he pays his rent of 300 bob and he said he sneaks into the forest to collect twigs which he sells as firewood. It’s illegal and so sometimes the forestry guys grab him and beat him up. Once he was tied to a tree and left there for hours as a lesson. But he kept going back. He told me these stories with indifference, with nonchalance, with little pomp or sense of bravado.
Because I’m foolish, and because I’m completely lost in this stupid middle-class reverie, I asked him if he can remember when he was at his happiest in his life. Like, seriously? Maybe I was looking for a little hope in this story. Maybe I was desperate to project my own sense of optimism into his dim existence to convince myself that there is always some light even in pitch darkness. And I must have come across as insensitive and naive, and an idiot.
A shadow of puzzlement crossed his face. I’m sure he thought, happiness? This guy is asking me about happiness? This is not about happiness, this is about survival. I mean here was an orphan, dirt poor and desperate, who eked out his living by rummaging in a forest, lived in a dark one roomed hovel, and I was asking him about happiness as if I was interviewing a white collar business leader who had transcended Maslow’s hierarchy. But he answered me after a long thought. He said softly that he was last happy when his grandmother was alive.
We finished the interview and he slithered back to where the rest were. Later as we drank warm sodas that were bought specially for the people from Nairobi, (it’s always a Fanta) I looked at his papers. He wasn’t an A student. He had a B plain in KCSE, but given his dim circumstances, that said something. We spoke some more. He told me he couldn’t join campus because he was missing 21K. He had tried everything, county government etc. He said he only had 1,500, so if I knew anyone who could help him. “I will pay them back one day,” he told me and that for me was the turning point. I will pay them back. That said more than everything he had said in camera.
I have seen and interviewed some poor people, from Kitui to Kisauni. But this boy’s poverty was stark because he was also alone. He didn’t have anyone to share the poverty. A lonely kind of poverty.
I remember giving him 1K as we parted to pay his rent for three months and he folded it in many pieces, until it was a little piece of paper and it clutched it in his palms because I doubt he had pockets to speak of.
I came back to Nairobi and went about my life, because really, you can’t save the whole world, can you? People play the hand they are dealt, after all, right? But that boy wouldn’t leave my mind. His bathroom sandals and how awkwardly his feet fit in them haunted me. Maybe he even borrowed them specifically for that day. I couldn’t stop thinking about his clothes and how poverty refused to wash off them. Yet they were the best in his closet. I wondered what dreams he had left in him and if it scared him to think about whether he would ever climb out of his hole of hopelessness.
Such things don’t let you sleep. Guilt invaded me. Eventually I sent him the balance he needed and he joined campus at Egerton University, Njoro. He was overjoyed. I had no plans for him. I still don’t. But he’s in school now studying Veterinary Medicine and surgery, animal health and he’s writing a different narrative of his life. Maybe he will make it, maybe he will fall on the wayside. But he’s now riding on hope, not getting tied in forests for twigs.
There are many like Ken. Many worse than him, I’m sure. They don’t have any “tall” relatives to help them because their lineage is tile after tile of poverty that goes down many generations. It’s only education that can rewrite their narrative. But sometimes they can’t even get that. Do you know who is holding back their dreams?
Yes, you. You who has refused to pay back your HELB loan. You who have to be followed and threatened and yet, you still refuse to pay back. Because of you, kids like Ken will wait patiently, in all corners of Kenya until you finish your pressing money matters. And they will wait, it’s not like they have many moves left.
You got helped through campus by HELB, now you need to hold the door open for the next guy who can’t pay. Ken and his ilk don’t need a hashtag, or a Paybill number to go to school. They simply need you to pay back your HELB Loan. Nothing beyond that. You hold the door open for them so that they too can hold the door open for the next round of guys who can’t afford to pay fees. It’s kindness. It’s compassion. Pay it forward. Change someone’s story.
But as long as you put away paying back your HELB loan, you are literally standing in someone’s sun.
Photo credit: Kenyan Facts. @ on Twitter.