Report & Essay

Kangemiís Fly On The Wall
Stanley Gazemba

 This story is another installation in our series of electoral dispatches. More are forthcoming, both on and in the print edition of Kwani 05, which will be launched at the Kwani Litfest in August.

Lodged in between Loresho to the north, Westlands to the east, Lavington across yonder to the south and Mountainview, Kangemi is like a wart on the ass of our affluent neighbours. And it is so ripe with putrefaction that a single stroke of the lance will see it spurting all over your face. It is for this reason that our neighbours are continually wary about our presence, breeding giant man-eating dogs and walling themselves in with twelve-foot walls that are topped with coils of razor wire, in between strands of electric wiring; as if we are some mutant man-eating rats that must be kept strictly in the cage. And yet, like a bad smell that lingers around for as long as it wishes, they discover that after all that effort they still cannot wish us off, because they rely on us to guard and clean their homes, baby-sit for them, and do their petty fix-jobs. Occasionally we will even marry one of them!

On a clear morning you can stand on the bridge straddling the busy Waiyaki Way and see the silhouette of the city spread out on the horizon to the east. It is just a short drive – or a brisk walk- away from the city centre, depending on how you choose to get there. Kangemi is home to a varied hodgepodge of people. There are well trained professionals who found that they couldn’t get out of the ghetto even after they had landed their dream job, living side by side with college graduates who couldn’t land a job at all. There are office cleaners and trained industrial workers rubbing shoulders with dirt-cheap prostitutes and small-time muggers who will twist your neck for a plastic Chinese watch. Why, there are even a sizeable number of retired civil servants who didn’t have a country home to go back to, and who are busy squeezing a living out of the last coins of their golden handshake. It is home to a minority Kikuyu population who own the shanties and run most of the businesses, and a giant migrant population who pay the rent and patronize the commercial outlets. Of the later the Luhyia form the bulk, followed by Kambas, Luos, Kisiis and a sprinkling of the other thirty-eight tribes.

On a typical Sunday afternoon Kangemi’s narrow dirt streets are jam-packed. The crowds surge to and fro like locusts on a trans-Sahara march, weaving around those who choose to hold conference in the middle of the street and prostrate street dogs and goats that have a right of way in the ghetto. Lined up along the street will be our open-air ‘hotels’- mgongo wazi fish skeletons frying in oil alongside chicken offal and other cast-offs from the prime butcheries in Westlands, balls of strong-smelling mbuta fish that the initiated chew raw, cows’ tongues and goats’ heads for making bitter muteta soup and all manner of edibles, all frying in brown greasy oil inside sooty drums. Guarding over them will be the equally expectant mamas waiting to wrap up the chosen lunch potion in old newspapers and manila paper torn off cement bags for the customers. From a distance the crowds appear like lumps of ugali and nyama negotiating their way down a giant steamy colon, seared by the various gastric juices- the glaring sun and cocoa-fine dust- until they are baked a brown shit.

It is these crowds and the free gossip-talk floating all around that creep under one’s skin upon entering the ghetto and infect them for life, keeping them from leaving, even when they can afford to live somewhere better off. And the talk in the ghetto comes in its raw unembellished form. The common joke has it that if you brought a kid from Kakamega to the city and placed them in Kangemi with the hope that they might pick up a bit of city Swahili and polish, you would be disappointed because by the end of the year, they would have picked up more Luhyia dialects instead.

In the run-up to the elections Kangemi was awash with activity, springing to life in a way we had last witnessed five years ago. All of a sudden the idle youth who had been used to idling away their days in Senator dens begging for a drink as they shared shriveled miraa twigs found themselves with so many jobs on their hands they were spoilt for choice. Desperate housewives who had been used to splitting their hairs on how best to knock together a budget out of the twenty bob the mzee of the house left in the morning all of a sudden found themselves on high demand singing and dancing the praises of the politician footing the bill at the numerous campaign gatherings. Old vans that had been abandoned in mechanics’ scrap yards were fitted with bald tyres and coaxed back to life for the campaigns, crackly speakers fixed to the roof and glossy posters pasted all over, leaving just enough space on the windshield for the driver to peep through. It was a season of plenty for temporary praise-singers, body-guards, and hecklers.

For a long while we forgot about the perennial Man U and Arsenal wars and tuned our ears in to this new entertainment. People came into the ghetto, important people in shiny Prados and Land-Cruisers that we had been used to seeing speeding past on the highway. This time round they found it worthwhile to bring their expensive cars into the cattle-tracks we call roads and stop to address us. It was exciting to learn that we were that important to warrant such persuasion, and we wallowed in it while it lasted, making them sweat to convince us to give them our vote. And how the poor fellows begged, coming short of getting down on their knees. The rich Wahindi opened their purses and swarmed the ghetto mamas with all manner of freebies, from mattresses to lessos and packets of unga and sugar. Thereafter they draped them in T-shirts emblazoned with their party symbol and went away satisfied that they had bagged their vote.

But the mamas were crafty, and they followed the Wahindi and pitched camp in their palatial homes that previously they had only gazed at from the street, kept at bay by red-eyed askaris and fierce dogs. And for the brief while of the campaigns the rich snobs were forced to carter for their rustic guests, setting up giant urns of chai and soup on the front lawn, where I am told the ghetto fellows would normally drop by morning as they were headed to work for breakfast. Come evening, as they trouped back from Industrial Area, they would pay a visit again for supper and handouts, before returning to the ghetto to drink and go to sleep. It was a season of plenty indeed. Why, one needn’t even go out to work at all!

It was a heated campaign that occasionally got steamy, although not quite to the point of youths rolling back their sleeves and doing the animal thing. The propaganda was vile and bleeding raw, almost inspired by the devil himself, and it whipped up the ghetto like a gale. The PNU camp were often heard to say that they could not concede leadership to a kihii, or a ‘mere uncircumcised boy’, as it translates in Gikuyu. This was no doubt aimed at the ODM presidential candidate, who is of the Luo tribe, who do not circumcise their males.

The response from the ODM camp was always ‘…just wait you’ll see. We’ll teach you a lesson at the ballot.’

Not to be left out were the ODM-K, or ‘wiver’ crowd, predominantly Kambas, who rooted for their candidate with equal fervor, the glee of the State House lights shining in their eyes, despite the fact that their candidate, Kalonzo, had prematurely been dismissed as a donkey among horses. Farasi ni wawili, the ODM and PNU camps had already declared. It was expected to be a war between Kibaki and Raila. For answer the ODM-K camp reminded us of the prophesized miracle that was going to stun us like the proverbial chameleon who clung to Hare’s tail at the onset of the race, and thus ended up sitting on the crown ahead of Hare. Tutapita katikati yenu, mtashangaa, they extolled.

Talk was rife in the slums that if he won the presidency, Raila intended to embark on a housing project that would either force the landlords in the slums to put up decent housing, or to drastically reduce the rents they charged for their tin shacks. A tin shanty in Kangemi goes for about Ksh. 1,500 a month if it has no electricity, and Ksh. 2,000 and above if it has electricity. A more decent stone-walled single-roomed flat goes for between Ksh. 3,500 to Ksh. 7,000, depending on the size, location and sanitary facilities. Most of the bathrooms are shared, save for the more upscale self-contained units. The toilets are often long-drop walls-in-the-ground where you can ably manufacture bio-gas in the sunny months. The water is drawn from a communal tap that the landlords lock with a metal contraption that resembles an ancient celibacy belt, and which they open for only one hour in the evening, during which time the entire plot is expected to draw their three jerricans for the following day’s use. Electricity is equally rationed, the main switch situated in the landlord’s house, turned on at six in the evening and off promptly at seven-thirty the following morning. It is like a prison camp, everything done completely at the landlord’s whim, with no room for litigation on the tenant’s part.

And to top it up the landlords, who operate like a Mafia cartel, had recently hiked rents all over, citing rising costs of building materials. This was a sick joke, considering a good number of the mabati and timber shacks had served three generations of landlords or more, whose sole occupation was coming round at month’s end to demand the rent, hardly spending anything on Peter Marangi or any such maintenance job. It is for this reason that there are always migrations of sorts around month-end, with the harassed tenants piling their possessions on mikokoteni and moving out, thinking they have found a better digs. But like tethered cows trampling a marked boundary, they soon discover that things are no better in their new house either. And like butcher-yard hawks, the landlords watch these goings and comings with a malevolent eye, knowing that they must keep tightening the grip on the wretched bands of hoi polloi, if only to keep them in their place.

It is this talk of reforms in the campaigns that incensed the landlords, who depend on the rents for a living. The bulk of the sulking tenants are emigrant tribes from upcountry who the Kikuyu property-owners delight in referring to as nyamu cia Ruguru, or destitute homeless refugees, despite the fact that a number of them have better houses back upcountry, compared to the rusty mabati pig-sties. The housing issue proved to be the central point in the campaigns in the slums, with the PNU lot defending the status quo, and the ODM side rooting for a shake-up in the way things were done. Unknown to everyone at the time, these were the first stirrings of a deepening chasm that would come to a head with devastating consequences later after the poling was done and the presidential results were announced.

However, their differences notwithstanding, the youths from both camps, who knew each other well because they lived in the same neighbourhood, would often meet at the neighbourhood pub at the end of the busy campaign day to catch the 7 O’clock news and share drinks, often joking about the events of the day.

On Election Day everyone woke up at the crack of dawn, bustling with excitement. There was no breakfast that day until the job was done. The ODM lot wanted to send Kibaki packing to Othaya, and the PNU lot were determined for Kazi Iendelee. The ‘waiver’ lot, whose spirits had been heightened by a last minute visit to the ghetto by Kalonzo, were almost certain of their miracle. As for Muiru, Nazlin and the other lot in the presidential race, I must say they were just filling up the ballot paper, given I had never run into a serious campaign meeting organized in the ghetto on their behalf. We didn’t even know the parties they were standing on until we saw the symbols on the ballot!

That day all the polling stations in Kangemi were going to register crowds like had never been witnessed before in Kangemi’s voting history. I followed the excited crowds to Kabarserian Centre where I had registered, only to be jostled onto one of the longest queues I have ever seen. I walked halfway to the ballot box, only to be turned back because I had joined the wrong queue, thanks to directions from a sleepy-eyed poling agent who was just as lost as the people he was trying to direct. But that notwithstanding I was not about to give up. For some reason I had inclined with the ODM lot, determined to send Kibaki packing to Othaya. I don’t know if it was to do with tribe, or the pertinacious rebellious streak I have always carried in me ever since my boarding-school days. Somehow, I have always found good company with the guys on the opposing side; and I know that I would drop my candidate like a hot brick if he went on to win and decided to go back to business-as-usual.

And maybe I should add that by this stage, my anti-Kikuyu feelings were perhaps at their highest, thanks in part to the effective doses of unrefined propaganda from both sides that had steadily been putting us on blinkers all this while. By ‘Kikuyu’ here I mean the entire Mount Kenya cabal that were supposed to be at the centre of things in PNU; all those who were agitating for the reinstatement of the current regime that had not only destroyed the Rainbow Dream of 2002 by trashing the constitutional reforms, but which also invited the Moi we kicked out back into the corridors of power by the backdoor, be they Merus, Embus, PNU-leaning Luhyias or whoever. The reason for my heightened sense of tribalism at the time must have stemmed from the fact that I had a Kikuyu landlord, I occasionally rode in a matatu owned by a Kikuyu to town, and I patronized a Senator joint owned by a Kikuyu. The first guy had just hiked my rent without explanation, the second had this nasty habit of hiking fares at whim, especially when it started to rain, and the third had been forcing me to buy Senator at 5 shillings more than the price recommended by Kenya Breweries. For this reason I was ready to go into the trenches with the anti-Kikuyu lot, regardless of the fact that I had some very nice Kikuyu friends in whose face I wouldn’t dare utter a swear word. That is how rotten the campaigns had made us. In my tunnel-visioned mind-frame the whole damn bunch of PNU guys were arrogant Kikuyu, even the Mungatanas, Kombos, Nyachaes and Tujus had sloughed off their skins and become ‘Mount Kenya Mafia’. As for Tony Gachoka, Njonjo and John Kiarie ‘KJ’, I could not arrive at a mid-way point. These fine gentlemen were certainly not from the same region as that arrogant bunch. This is how heightened our tribal antenna had become in the heat of the moment.

But perhaps what we did not expect at the time even as we traded words was that the whole thing would cannonball into the wanton murder of almost five-hundred people in cold blood. That in a short while our ideological differences would take on a frightening angle of uncontrolled blood-letting and destruction of people’s hard-earned property.

Anyway, the long queues and hunger at the voting centre notwithstanding, I was in good company for an elderly Kamba guy ahead of me and a teacher-ish well-traveled Kikuyu lady behind me in the queue kept up steady intelligent conversation all through the long wait, voicing their determination to vote out grumpy old men who had steadily come to believe that they were the best thing that ever happened to their constituencies, and that their leadership positions were God-given. Everyone around me seemed in the mood to start a little revolution at the ballot. We envisioned egg-smooth dual carriageways crisscrossing our country, a New York-style subway for Nairobi, fat smiling kids boarding school safety buses, well-fed Kenyans coming home to decent houses at the end of a day’s job, and all those good things. And it gladdened my heart to see the large turnout of eighteen-ish youth who had just grabbed their IDs the other day, and who were equally enthusiastic about exercising their democratic right. It was a sunshiny day.

And the sunshine carried into the next day, with everyone watching the results creep in in the Media. I cannot lie. Up to the 29th December, we on the ODM side seemed certain of a win. Indeed on the 28th we assembled at Bottom Line Pub in the heart of Kangemi and hit the party, dancing to a popular Luhyia dirge that had been reworked by Jamnazi Africa Band so that the lyrics were sending Kibaki to Othaya and welcoming Raila to State House. A euphoric mood had engulfed the dancing pub, with the celebrating crowd occasionally turning to indicate at the TV screens, where the KTN tally showed our candidate was still way ahead with a yawning million-vote count that Kibaki could not hope to close by any stroke of magic. We were exalted. And the few Kikuyus in the hall were simply downcast. I bought and received free drinks until I was as drunk as a mouse that had strayed into a brewer’s vat.

The first thing I did the following morning, the 29th, was to turn on the TV and sit blinking there for a while, wondering if my sleepy eyes were playing tricks on me. As usual I was greeted by the then familiar figures on the screen showing the recent tallies of the Media house. What I found hard to believe was that the million-vote gap between Raila and Kibaki was gone- it had virtually disappeared overnight as we slept! I remember getting up very slowly and swinging my leaden feet out of bed and shaking my head to clear the grogginess of the drinking of the day before. Could this really be true, or were my eyes playing tricks with me?

But as if to confirm it I noticed an uncanny silence all over the place.

Without taking my morning tea, nor waking my wife, I got up very slowly and went out to get a newspaper, just to confirm what I was seeing. I was not just shocked, but stunned as well. I could hardly speak to anyone. As I walked through the slum, I saw bands of people in little gatherings, mostly the predominant Luhyias, Luos and Kisiis. Just like me they looked stunned. ‘Wakikuyu wameiba kura’ (The Kikuyu have stolen the vote), was all you could hear around. This was the day the suspicion and tension started mounting, reaching the apex on that fateful Sunday when the ECK finally announced the official results.


It had been tense all day as the slum residents followed the election results on tiny radios in the dusty streets. And as the day wound to an end the anxiety was at its peak. And then the evidently stressed ECK Chairman Samuel Kivuitu announced the winner of the presidential poll and it was like the long-drawn tension snapped.

First there was a deafening silence in which hardly anything moved- the lull before a storm. And then, after the news that the incumbent, President Kibaki, had been declared winner had sunk in, wails rent the slum. We all knew that we were on the verge of a momentous moment.

Almost all at once the slum dwellers came out and assembled in small gatherings in the streets, their faces blank, discussing the outcome in lowered voices. But of note, even with a winner having been declared, there were no audible celebrations; unlike in the 2002 polls when frenzied supporters poured out into the streets chanting. After two days of anxiety as the counting went on, further fueled by the sideshows of the opposition leaders that had kept the ECK Chairman from declaring the winner in the KICC Media briefing room, the final declaration was like a pin-prick on the giant balloon that had been inflating steadily. And the Chairman had chosen a fine time of day for doing it. I stayed by the TV for a while to watch the hastily-convened swearing-in ceremony, my body frozen in that pre-adrenalin state preceding a very exciting moment. And as I watched the bunch of losers who had assembled for the swearing-in, their heads swollen with hubris, eyes aglow with self-aggrandizement, I felt ashamed of being a Kenyan. There was an evident air of midnight-conspiracy about the whole affair, with the duped Press just barely sneaking in to catch the left-overs. Even a toddler would have told you it was a pale shadow of the same moment in 2002. It was as night finally settled that the fires and riots started.

I sat there shivering, holding onto my equally scared son as the gunshots shattered the night. We had turned off all the lights and switched off the TV and radio, our natural instincts telling us it was the best way to throw the enemy off target in the dark. As we sat there stock-still, holding onto each other, all we could hear were our staggered heartbeats. Every crack of the G3s jolted right into our systems, causing warm bile to spread at the base of the stomach. It was more frightening heard this close. It was easier when we wrote or read about it in books or watched it in the movies. This here was more tactile, the tension of the moment palpable.

I expected anytime for a stray bullet to punch through my paper-thin mabati wall and blow me away into Kingdom Come. For the first time I hated being born in Kenya. I hated the utter helplessness of the moment. The fact that when they eventually kicked in my shaky wooden door I would be a sitting duck. I looked around in the familiar darkness, gauging my defenses. There was the stool on which my wife placed our stove. I could simply wield it by one leg and swing with all my might. There was also the thick broken lamp-stand that I kept underneath the bed. It was made of solid hard wood, and was heavy and felt nice in my grip. While it would surely smash a skull, I wondered if it could stop a bullet. I suddenly wished I had been in a country where I could walk up to a shop counter and purchase a sawn-off shotgun. At least with that, when they eventually got me, I would be there to meet them with a blast of lead in the belly, and die like a man- fighting.

After an unbearably long time the gunshots ceased and an uneasy calm returned.

“Daddy, hao ni polisi?” asked my shivering son, his eyes shining in the dark.

“Yes,” I whispered.

But hardly had we settled down than the screams of the marauding youths returned, punctuated by the ruckus of breaking glass and tearing mabati, in the background the whispery rasp of petrol flames lapping hungrily on a cool breezy night.

In all it was a long night- usiku mrefu, as the local parlance goes. Eventually the kids drifted off into troubled sleep and I put them to bed. We then lay in our places and pretended to sleep, our eyes squeezed shut, our ears wide awake.

And the following day was to be no exception, for the GSU were still at hand to usher in the New Year for us with gunshots. My Kikuyu neighbour, who also happens to be the landlord’s son, and who is my good drinking mate on a regular day, had got bored of sitting in his house alone and sneaked over to my place. He brought along a couple of beers he had contrived from his father’s pub and my wife forked out some rice and beef and for a while there we forgot everything and went into our habitual New Year’s Eve habit. Indeed it went so fine as my friend got emboldened to go out for some more beer. And so we pooled some money and found some dusty empties. But hardly had he been gone a couple of seconds that I heard a scuffle outside.

‘Unakwenda wapi, Kijana?’ demanded that distinct Kalenjin-ish voice that every late-coming Kenyan drinker is familiar with. My friend tried to put across his case, but he was hastily cut short by a stiff boot to the backside that sent him flying back.

‘Rudi kwa nyumba haraka! Leo hakuna kunywa!’

And so for the rest of the night we sat trembling in our abodes. And it was interesting that even with the PNU-win, both Kikuyus and other tribes were equally marooned and shaking in their digs. The guys with the hard boots finally ushered in our New Year with wild gunshots that shook the mabati walls- I suspect they were high on something. And for the first time in my life I didn’t hear the sound of kids beating debes and applauding the New Year from the ridges yonder.

In short, in the blink of an eye, thanks to a botched verdict by the ECK, Kenya had just crossed over from a long-time haven of peace in the region to tribal chaos of a magnitude never before experienced, and which would in a very short while threaten to tear the entire country apart.

Stanley Gazemba was born in Vihiga, Western Kenya, in 1974; he is the author of The Stone Hills of Maragoli, winner of the 2003 Jomo Kenyatta Literary Prize, and numerous short works of fiction.

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