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Archive for April, 2012

Having a Kenyan passport is many times a curse. Don’t get me wrong, I am very proud of where I come from and would not wish to come from anywhere else. It is just that the blue travel document that I have to carry from my beloved country causes me endless strife.

I remember recently passing through O R Tambo International Airport on my way home from some forgotten place, and after queuing up for what was the better part of an hour, I finally got an audience with an immigration clerk who turned out to be no different from most of the others I’ve come across in my travels.

In an effort to make his job easier, I handed over my passport with the relevant visa page open but he promptly – without even glancing at the proffered page – closed it and started paging through it from the beginning. Why do they do that? Anyway, when he eventually got to the page with the sticker that gives me permission to reside in South Africa indefinitely, his expression changed to one of incredulity. An expression that said, “Of all the stickers you could have in your passport, this is the one that you’ve dared to present to me today??!!”  Maybe I didn’t look like someone who should be living here.

“Where’s your ID?” he then asked.

“I don’t have one”, I responded.

“Driver’s license?” he quickly continued.

“I don’t have one”, I said again.

“How do I know that you are really a permanent resident then?” he finally said after thumbing through my passport from beginning to end several times again.

“Because it says so on page sixteen of the book in your hand you idiot! Since when is a driver’s license or ID card necessary at immigration!?” I wanted to respond – irritated by the incessant thumbing – but I held my counsel. Experience has shown me that playing dumb in these situations helps the process move along a bit faster.

“Where’s your yellow fever ?” he continued after realising that I was not going to respond to his last question.

What followed was probably the result of having spent the previous ten hours in a cramped seat between a man whom I thought to be a Palestinian heavyweight champion of some variety who just would not fit in his seat, and another chap whose penchant for fast-food was obvious in his girth and chubby hands that were clearly not designed for sharing the armrests provided in the economy cabin. I stopped playing dumb.

Something snapped inside and I heard myself saying to the immigration guy “Why do I need a yellow fever certificate when I obviously live here and I have only been away for a few days and not even to a yellow fever region?”

Clouds gathered and too late I realised that I had just earned myself a thorough schooling in the art of using bureaucracy to inflict pain through stupidity. What had I done?

“You know very well that you always have to have a yellow fever with this passport?” he retorted while thumbing through my poor passport yet again.

Fortunately, not all my wits had abandoned me and I quickly regained my stoicism and fished out the demanded “yellow fever” from my bag without further comment and handed it over. I had learnt through experience never to be without one.  It was all, however, too little too late and the irate imp decided to escalate the whole thing to his supervisor who was hovering behind the counters.

I saw him animatedly waving my passport at his supervisor and I caught bits of the conversation which included words like “no ID” and “permanent resident”. I resigned myself to thinking about how I’d need to reschedule my connecting flight because it was looking like one of those situations where an interview in a backroom was about to be had. Me and my big mouth, I thought to myself.

Much to my pleasure and surprise, however, I heard the boss-lady say to him “stop wasting his time, there are many people waiting in line”, and just like that by troubles ended. However, as a parting shot, the annoyed immigration clerk paged through my passport one last time and spitefully ignored all the spaces available and stamped my entry onto the centre of one of my few remaining blank pages.

After having travelled on a Kenyan passport for this long, I suppose I should have learnt to keep my mouth shut and maybe I deserved the maltreatment. Maybe I should just grit my teeth and keep my mind focussed beyond the border. I’m certainly not the only one who carries a passport that invites this kind of abuse, and it’s certainly not the only place where this kind of thing happens. Frankfurt airport, for example, is a lot worse for me to pass through than any other airport, and it has been for many years. That, however, is not a story that I can tell with any measure of humour and so will keep it off print for now.

My question is this. Why does my passport attract such negative treatment despite having all the required stickers and stamps in it that have to be applied for in advance at significant cost in both time and money? Is it something I did or said?

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Once upon a time.

“I met a traveller from an antique land” is the first line of a poem by Shelley that has fascinated me for many many years. This poem about the inevitability of decline centres around a long dead king called Ozymandias whose empire has been laid to waste by time and nothing remains of it save a shattered statue of the despot.

That first line of the sonnet still manages to transport me back to the desolate scene it further describes.

I first heard this poem during a recital at school, and it has remained with me through the years. I have in this period imagined Ozymandias in many forms with my most significant expression of him being through some desktop graffiti that I would do while in school.  I would scratch out the form of a man with long flowing dreadlocks mouthing what I imagined to be very profound sayings and sign these quotes with that enigmatic name, Ozymandias.

These scribblings would be done in secret to lend an air of mystery to the concept and after I had done about ten of them, people began to notice and speculate about who Ozymandias was. I imagined that my fellow students were thinking that the drawings were the inspired works of someone touched by genius and I continued to deface school property with my then new-found art, trying to revive a hero long gone.

“From the darkness there must come a light”, “Sing your own song” and “The abyss also looks into you” were just some of the many borrowed quotes that my oh-so-cool rastaman claimed to be his and that I plastered next to his image wherever I could find a space in the hope of a meme resulting from my interpretation of Ozymandias.

I was soon discovered to be the one behind the graffiti and with this discovery I also learnt that people were not really interested in who Ozymandias might have been, but rather more by when I found time to do the scribblings and why I even did them. There were many hints dropped that I should get a life and so, sadly, that particular revival of the ancient king’s following died without going viral.

I have, however, found that I’m not the only Ozymandias enthusiast out there and that there are all sorts of websites with different angles ranging from actual recitals to even a low-budget movie that I’m not sure was ever aired.

Interestingly, the ending of the poem is also appropriate in describing the current state of my attempted revival of king Ozymandias.

“Round the decay of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare the lone and level sands stretch far away.”

The complete poem by Percy Bysshe Shelley

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desart. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away

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Earlier on in the year, while querying why African superheroes were so thin on the ground, I introduced a notional champion that I hoped to incubate and eventually hatch into a credible African man of power. This story is a foray into the possible life of the superhero known as the Shizzle.

Titus Keroda, a denizen of Murang’a – an idyllic town nested in the central highlands of Kenya that really should need no introduction- is the Shizzle.

Not the Murang’a of “Paris, London, New York and Murang’a” fame, I hear you ask? Yes, the very same one I tell you.

This pearl of a place now has its very own masked defender patrolling its streets and shining the bright light of justice at those who would lurk in its coffee plantations and other such places where crime is rife in this metropolis that is just a shade short of sprawling.

Titus, until recently, was a very ordinary fellow living a very unremarkable life as a small-scale farmer bouncing between his patches of produce and the local markets eking out a meagre living from the soil of his beloved Mo-Town (Murang’a Town). The only break in his dull routine was the occasional jaunt into town when he visited Thengeini bar and where he held court for as long as his money lasted, captivating an audience more interested in his generosity than by his broken words.

On one very such day, Titus’s life was to change forever. A string of very unlikely events combined together and altered the course of his life away from its humdrum path to one that would lead him away from his fields to the skies of Murang’a.

On this fateful day, with an unusual amount of spurious liquor coursing through his veins, Titus fell into a pit latrine and was then struck by lightning setting off reactions that altered his physiology in amazing ways and giving him extraordinary abilities.

He really should have died on this dark night in that beautiful town, but for some inexplicable reason fate rescued him from that grisly death and chose to give him another chance at life. On closer examination though, perhaps fate really did end his pathetic life that day and deigned to replace it with a newer and much more interesting one. Mr. Keroda was born anew that day.

Imbued with great power and new sense of justice, he set off to change his life and that of the society he lived in. He meant to give it fresh purpose and meaning and to accede to the responsibility that he felt accompanied his new-found vim. He knew that he had been chosen to serve his community as the indomitable Shizzle.

Having watched all the superhero movies that had found their way into the local open-air film theatre, he felt compelled to test the limits of his new prowess by mimicking what he had often seen on the silver screen.

Bounding from building to building did not work quite as he would have liked, but in trying the great leaps, he discovered that he would easily survive the fall by landing with a loud squelching splat that left only rather dubious looking stains on the streets in between.

Neither could he read the minds of his foes, but his presence never left him in any doubt at all about what people were thinking. The Shizzle was a very terrifying presence indeed.

Another power that he found that he had was an encyclopaedic knowledge of all known toilet graffiti and in several languages, but he had yet to find a practical way to use this in his campaign against the underworld.

His greatest power, however, was the ability to influence the onset of bowel movements in his enemies. A power so effective that he had once stopped a riot at the local town hall by causing a mass evacuation (pun regretted) by the rampaging workers leaving only a rather smelly but empty hall behind. It is a power so great that one can even conceive of its use in ending wars.

Titus, the Shizzle, is yet to discover the full extent of his new abilities and has still to devise a suitable costume that befits his prowess. He’s found that capes tend to stick to his back and so for now he simply wears a diaper.

The local police have still to be convinced that he is a something more than just a nuisance with a hygiene problem. And so for now, our hero battles not only the forces of evil but also for acceptance from the community that he places himself at risk for everyday. He longs for the day when they will shine a light in the sky with his insignia whenever there is trouble.

That day is not here yet and so Titus patiently continues squelching in between the buildings of Murang’a and fighting crime alone while trying to figure out a way to convert toilet graffiti into a main-stream art.

He is certain that his day will soon come.

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