Life In Africa (Introductory 7 out of 354 Pages)
The elderly people enjoyed great respect from everyone (just by having grey hair on their head commanded undisputed respect) and these elders liked the “grey tops” very much, to the old the grey hair was their “valid passport” to attend any gathering and be allowed to address the people no matter what they wanted to say-whether it was sensible or not. White hair and wisdom were inseparable. Nowadays many elderly people are dying their hair black to look young. Times and people have really changed.
We all attended local activities together; celebrating new-borns, parties for the planting season, harvesting season, weddings. Funerals were attended by everyone, whether you knew the deceased or not. A new born baby was celebrated by the whole village, and everyone took presents to see the new-born’s family and stayed there for days even without invitation. Girls used to go to fetch water from the rivers, miles away from home; they would place very large buckets of water on their backs. They would carry the largest buckets on their backs just to prove to their mothers, and in many cases to prove to the boys that they were grown –ups or mature enough to be married, sometimes breaking their backs by putting the need to be admired before their safety. To these girls it was beauty first then safety-and that hasn’t changed much as many ladies still put their beauty as more important than their safety. Women would be weaving sisal-string baskets and weaving their hair in open spaces around the houses, in groups, chatting and always laughing loudly (I don’t know what they would always laugh about), as crops grew in the farms getting ready for harvest. There were always gossips about who was getting married to whom and most important how big the feasting party would be.
There were mothers carrying babies, loosely hang on their backs as they washed clothes using their hands (and feet) from plastic and metallic basins, babies would be tied to their mother’s “chest” by a long cloth across the breasts, and the babies would be breast feeding themselves as the mothers did other tasks. When the baby “was done” with one breast, the baby would switch to the other breast until satisfied. The mother would seem less concerned about the breast feeding babies or breast feeding in “unconscious mode.” Mothers would sometimes leave their children for days with their neighbours if they had to travel far, but not nowadays: the community sprit is no more, times have changed-today your baby is your baby, sort out your baby’s needs on your own.
There were women weaving sisal fibre baskets “Kiondo baskets” and sleeping mats, girls playing “rope skips”, kids spent a lot more time working as part of their family duties and looking after siblings (especially girls). Boys would be making homemade toys from wood, cardboard boxes, animal skins and bone and stones. Boys would be playing-rolling hoops (a circular band of metal or wood), rims, tyres, drumming, soccer, volleyball, athletics, wrestling, boxing, cycling; playing with trucks hand made from wood, wire, tin cans and other collected objects, scrabble, flying kites. Girls would be playing “stones flick and catch”- take about 8 pebbles, place them on the back of your hand, quickly flip them all in the air as you turned your hand over and had to grab them all... then do it again... then strategically drop a pebble or two from the gaps between your fingers, then do all these “skills” like flick a pebble in the air and quickly grab the one on the ground before the ones in the air fell down-this made life fun for the girls, making toys made of mud or out of scraps and tins from popular cooking oil brands like “Blue Band”, “Kimbo” or “Cowboy” tins, or out of “Omo” washing detergent boxes and empty bottles.
Girls would be playing with dolls, often hand-made from wood, cloth, straw and found objects, dancing, singing and music, girls practicing cooking with imitated pots as “mothers”. Boys and girls playing “father” “mother” and “children” imitations. Did they really understand the “difficulties” of being a parent? I don’t think so. Life was meant to be easy and a “collective” responsibility. Traditionally the Kikuyu (my tribe), we were farmers growing bananas, sugarcane, arum lily, yams, beans, millet, maize, black beans and a variety of vegetables, coffee, tea, arrow roots, sweet potatoes and keeping a few chickens, a cow and four to five goats. Community, sharing, repeat patterns and simplicity was part of everyday life.
Every Friday morning before going to school I would milk the cow and then take it to the cattle dipping vats, week in and week out for years. Even the cow had gone to the dipping vats so many times it knew the way by itself-two times the cow went, dipped itself and came back home by its own, a distance of four hours walk to and from. These dipping vets were concrete lined pits in the earth, about 3 or 4 feet wide, 5 feet deep, and 25 feet long. One end had a sharp drop into the pit; the other end was gently sloped so that the cattle could walk out. These vats were built and filled with strong solutions of arsenic, or later, synthetic pesticides such as DDT and toxaphene. Most of the vats were required to be built by state law in an attempt to eradicate the cattle fever ticks, and in some cases to treat villagers who were infested with jiggers (fleas) or (Tunga penetrans-scientific name) in their feet, fingers and even elbows, who were forced by the local chief’s security or “hand-men” as we called them to deep their feet and fingers into these vets so that the jiggers could be killed by these toxic solutions.
One major event we did was the harvesting of tea and coffee, and the tea was to be exported the United Kingdom, Pakistan, Egypt, Afghanistan, Yemen, North America, Asia and other countries. Coffee was to be exported to Germany, Belgium, Finland, Sweden, U.S.A, Netherlands, UK and other countries. A lot of times we exported these crops but the government paid us nothing. Not even a penny-we were working for free. We farmed these crops but we had no authority over who to sell the products to or whether to stop farming them altogether. It was a criminal offence to uproot “your” crops and punishable by ten years in jail. Our government (undoubtedly corrupt), the exporting agencies and the buyers from the foreign countries worked in harmony to steal from the poor farmers. The farms belonged to us “by name” but if someone was fed up with farming without pay there were no channels at all to make any complains. It was a criminal offence to neglect the “cash” or export crops, punishable by a long jail term.
Of course we “gave away” these exports in exchange for a few coins, if any. “Was this institutionalised slavery in our times?” More so than not. The more we “exported” the poorer we became-we knew how to farm these exports and take them to the local factories to be quickly shipped away and knew nothing about how the export trade worked or how to correctly calculate our sales or how international markets and currencies worked, and worst of all where the exports were being taken to.
Fair trade is a word which was invented too late and did too little to change the situation. Fair trade came later when there wasn’t enough trade. I have nothing against the fellows who were sipping and enjoying the tea and coffee in United Kingdom, Pakistan or German cities in their houses or hotels but I feel I was betrayed, abused, enslaved and conned off my money by “my government” and the foreign companies and foreign governments as they knowingly did this to me-making me to work without pay-they took the products and the profits and gave us poverty in exchange. “Poor old Africa, the giant was still asleep”. I doubt whether “the giant has fully waken up even by today (2011)”. And this time round it is the Chinese, Pakistan and Indians who have gone to Africa to revise with the Africans the lessons learnt by the Africans in the 20th century-obviously it is the Africans who will meet the bill for these “business and trade revision lessons”. In effect this is to make Africans fully understand the world of business and trade but not to make Africans any richer. Anyway, all the women had strong built bodies to work hard in the farms all the day long and breast feed the child and very important, big “bottoms” to fully satisfy their husbands at night.
Every major event in the village was announced by the chief’s messenger, who walked around the village roads and pathways shouting loudly (without a loud speaker) across the valleys about compulsory chief’s meetings, cancelled school days, health risk alerts, a bridge to be built, a broken river bridge, fires, (no funeral announcement as that may anger the spirits of the dead), weddings and fund raisings, cattle vet dipping days, a missing person or a thief or a witch, “wanted dead or alive”. But with the coming of the telephone lines, computers and later mobile phones the chief’s messenger job became irrelevant. The chief’s messenger voice was a voice of authority and we listened carefully to his “rumblings” as sometimes we couldn’t understand what he was saying especially if it was raining heavily or very windy. The chief’s authority was not to be questioned by anyone, even when he said one plus one is equals three (by mistake). Everyone followed his orders first and questioned his wisdom later (of course not openly but in private).
The working class people (we called them the “chosen few” or “bosses”) who worked in big cities and had well paying jobs lived privileged lives as they were rich enough to own a second hand car and employ workers to do almost every task for them; from making their beds, opening the homestead gates for the boss and his visitors, welcoming the bosses with a smile, cooking for the bosses (and the boss’s dogs), washing and ironing the boss’s clothes, farming, polishing the family shoes, washing their cars, and guarding the bosses’ homes as security guards or “security men”-“with a little money, everything was affordable and possible”. Having many children, biggest farms, many cows, goats, chickens, rabbits and farm workers was the best measure of one’s wealth.
Police only came into the inner parts of the village from their posts or stations in the main market places only in times of chaos or to collect money or bribes to settle fightings, family arguments; arguments over farms’ border lines and other boundaries, thefts, to quell “unlicensed” meetings, to take bribes from “illegal” traditional beer dens, sometimes bribes were for unspecified reasons and to arrest people after what they called “tip-offs” of individuals who were against “the usual ways, their rules and questioned government procedures (people like me). Police were so brutal and ruthless when dealing with the villagers (especially the ones who couldn’t afford to give them bribes) that babies and youngsters would cry and vomit when they saw the police from a distance coming towards their houses-and the police have changed little (if any) up to now.
What I hated most when I was about ten years old was waking up very early in the morning (normally about 5:00a.m) to go to school during the cold season months and say goodbye to my warm bed.During this “winter” season, I normally had to “protest” or “demonstrate” first thing every morning at home after waking up so that I could be allowed to spend the day at home, sometimes I would “threaten” my mother that I won’t listen to the teachers when I got to school, or I would complain of backache, flu, African Trypanosomiasis (“sleeping sickness”), Malaria, headache or any illness which I thought of at that given minute, but my mother won’t take any of my complains as valid, her answer was always the same “go to school then we will talk properly when you come back from school”, because she knew I would always come back “healed”, tired and hungry. I never liked my mother’s “stick and carrot tactics,” like “you don’t go to school, you don’t get this or that” “remember that the Christmas presents I am planning to buy are only for those who do as I say” “education is the key to your future” “if you don’t go to school you are no longer mine” “what are you doing to me” “don’t bring shame to this family” “don’t go to school and I will whip you big time” “no school no food”.
My mother would very quickly wash my face with cold water (as if we were in a big rush not to miss the launching of a timed rocket), quickly smear a lot of cooking oil on my face to make me look “beautiful” “clean” and “smart”, grab my school bag on one hand and hold my hand with her other hand and I would be “frogmarched” and “escorted” all the way to the home compound gate, and as if she had started a vehicle which was not moving but she needed to “jump start” it, she would meticulously release my hand as if changing the gears in a car, and she would assume that I can do the rest of the walking to school on my own.
I could hear my mother’s loud soprano (the highest female voice) voices behind me saying words like “goodbye my son, good boy, listen to your teachers and behave well and see you in the evening,” but I assumed I did not hear her or had any interest in being “praised”. So I had to go to school, walking along wet, rough, misty, freezing, dusty paths, on my bare feet every Monday to Friday, every week. This was a painful and dreadful experience. Only the children from high-class families- chiefs, sub-chiefs, shop owners, “city bosses” and teachers (we used to call these children “royal families”), were allowed to wear shoes at school. Wearing shoes at school was discouraged as shoes were not part of the official school uniform and wearing shoes made the work of teachers hard when they wanted to whip someone’s feet.
But as I grew up I got interested and excited about going to school, especially graduating from one class level to another, feeling bigger and greater among my age mates, friends and getting recognised in the village. When I look back today I think my mother’s commitment and determination to ensure I had to go to school was fruitful and helpful to me, since I can read and write today, thanks mum.
I studied hard and in most times I was in the top ten performing students in my class of over a hundred students. Being one of the top students in the national examinations easily made me a lot of friends, and also enemies especially in the political circles. It meant my words and actions were not to be easily ignored. Some politicians even made political capital out of me by associating closely with me, and for the ones I declined their offers, I became an enemy, and a target to hit. Eventually it was time to attend secondary (or high) school and later university. At university the hopes and dreams of a bright future became real. One thing that defined my life in university was the vigorous academic studies I had to undergo, which was inseparable to our regular anti-government protests, demonstrations and campaigns against government policies and high university tuition fees, and the fear of resultant student leaders’ arrests became part of our life.
My writing and distributing of leaflets to students, homes, churches and general public when I was at university to enlighten them on their human rights, civil rights and their duties and responsibilities as citizens created the main reasons for misunderstandings, surveillance, arrests, interrogations and beatings by the government “security” officials. Every crack down, arrest, beating and interview started with the same “opening” question, “Tell us everything you know, for your safety, because we know everything about you.” Even when the security officials had arrested passers by caught up in the university protest chaos and knew nothing about the protest, let alone why they had been arrested, the question was the same for these passers-by: “Tell us everything you know, for your safety, because we know everything about you.”
The scars on our bodies from those attacks tell their own stories. One lady whom we were arrested, “interviewed” and beaten together told me “Scars are tattoos with success stories to tell. These are markings which symbolise freedom for us and for generations to come. They are signatures on valuable cheques to cash freedom.” I told her “Sweet heart, hold your head (and your buttocks) tall and high even when we are in difficulties my sister, because we will overcome this and come out of this seasonal hardships as heroes. I admire your courage and your beauty”. She told me “I fully agree with you.” These beatings required us to have courage and willingness to live, and something to hang on or stand on as Paul in the Bible said: “We are hard-pressed on every side, yet not crushed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; 9 persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed” 2 Corinthians 4:8-9 New King James Version (NKJV).