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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?

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

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.

Top gear

The Wheelbarrow

Kenya, like most developing countries, has an ageing fleet of motor vehicles. Ramshackle cars that have exceeded their predicted lifespans many times over and have lived for years that I expect baffle even their own creators.

Because of the thin economics that afflict most of us, we strive to coax every last kilometer out of our cars with measures that include second-hand parts drawn from a burgeoning market that imports junked cars from the first world and strips them for much appreciated parts that are for sale in every  state and description imaginable.

There are also mechanics that work in garages that are nothing more than the shade of a tree and who are to be found in most neighborhoods plying their trade of keeping our cars patched and oiled as they continue to evade their grim reapers clasp. Such are the skills of these artisans that I once had an entire engine overhauled in just such a leafy garage and it is my bet that that car is still pottering about somewhere in Nairobi, no doubt a source of great pleasure and pride to its hundredth owner.

KPQ 788 was the registration of that car and it is with it, that I begin my story of my many relationships with cars over the years.

We acquired this car, my brother and I, back in the early nineties, at which stage it was already a mature 25 years old. It really belonged to my brother, but as I drove it almost as much as he did, the ownership lines had blurred. PQ, as it later came to be called, was a glorious machine that carried my friends and I to places beyond our previous frontiers that were defined mainly by bus routes and timetables.

After a couple of years of sharing PQ with my brother, I was finally able to put enough money together to get my very own car. She was oh-so-shiny and my pride and joy, my beauty. So fast that my Matilda, my everything.

Matilda, like PQ was an equally ancient jalopy that was aptly named in allegory to Harry Belafonte’s Matilda who had duped him into loving her and then took all his money and ran off to Venezuela. My Matilda, similarly, had cleaned out my bank account and even left me in some debt in her acquisition. She represented all that I had to my name back then but that had mattered very little. I was independently mobile, and though petrol would sometimes prove to be a challenge I could go anywhere I wanted whenever I wished. So fast that my Matilda, my everything.

My relationship with Matilda was however not to be as forever as I had imagined it would be when I first fell in love. As I found my way in the world, I began to want more out of life than poor Matilda could provide and with this desire came my new mistress, Wamaitha.

Wamaitha, yet another banger of a car, swept into my life brandishing wily charms at me and rendering me helpless with features like a fifth gear and even a single headrest on the driver’s seat.  Never before had I known such luxury on four wheels. Even the radio worked, albeit a bit reluctantly.

Oh, how I’d loved that car. I had named her after a shrew of a woman that I had once known who was constantly agitating for attention. She and I had a tempestuous relationship, marked with many breakdowns that led to her being frequently interred at the local garage as they transplanted part after part in efforts to keep her lively for me. Much as I had loved her, I soon had to end that relationship because it eventually reached the point where I could no longer keep up with her demands.

After a few more tumultuous flings with several other motors, I eventually met up with the love of my life, Mercy.  Mercy was everything that I’d ever wanted in a car. Two headrests, a fifth gear and even a much beloved hood ornament all forming part of her seductive livery and oh, so much more than that.

Such a thing of beauty she was. We would spend days on end gamboling across the roads of Southern Africa, conquering horizon after horizon with an ease that I quickly became accustomed to – increasingly sure that each kilometer would be tackled with the same effortlessness as the last.

But, once again, it was the endless search for better circumstances in life that separated Mercy and I. This time it came in the form of me leaving the country that I lived in then to seek my fortune elsewhere and having to leave Mercy behind forever. Mercy, oh my Mercy. Being separated from her was a very hard thing indeed and I have never loved a car again as I did her.

My current relationship is with a gas glutton that is simply known as the Wheelbarrow.  It is a rather large car of the type that a friend once described as a sitting-room on wheels. My youngest son disappears into the vastness of its back seat and cannot see out the window even when on his booster seat.

It is a relic that, in this new era of six-speed cars, does not even have a fifth gear and is a rather ponderous drive to boot.  It is also older than anyone born in post apartheid South Africa and behaves rather like it still has a seperationist’s agenda as it excludes me from the ranks of the noticeable. It makes not the slightest effort to excite as it continues to serve its  very specific purpose of just being (mostly) reliable transportation.

It is a pairing that I fear I am stuck with for the discernible future and if it’s anything like the cars I’ve driven before, it has yet another fifteen years of motoring waiting to be coaxed out of it.

My only hope is that it does not get to spend its many remaining years with me.

Seven years ago, while in transit at the Johannesburg airport, I met with a couple of good friends. They had come to help me whittle away the long five hour wait that I had before jumping onto my next plane to a destination that I no longer remember. One of my friends was also seeing off his girlfriend who was on her way to some other unremembered destination.

This meeting went like countless others, with lots of froth lubricating the frolic and mirth that always went with such assemblies.

What makes me write about that day is what, at the time, was a seemingly inconsequential conversation that I had with my friend’s then brand new partner about what I considered to be a ridiculous new trend in cyberspace. These were the dawning times of the now ubiquitous web log.

“Why on earth would anybody be interested in reading what I have to say?” I remember saying to her. “Blogging is just another flash in the pan type fad and it will never catch on” I went on. Having just met me and clearly of good breeding, she let me continue digging myself into the awkward position that I later found myself in when she quietly told me that she had a blog of her very own and that she was actually quite the enthusiast.

Sensing clouds gathering and with the help of the little breeding that I had to draw from, I quickly shifted gears and charged down another avenue of conversation without for a moment yielding the soap box. You’ll understand that we only had a few hours and with the alcohol fueling my fervour, I felt compelled to squeeze my other various opinions on life, the universe and everything into this short time with my friends.

But thoughts of the quietly spoken lady and her blogging habit that I had so ridiculed remained with me. So much so, that when I got to the other side of my trip, I decided to sneak a peek at her musings looking to confirm my thoughts that blogs and the good use of time were completely unrelated.

What happened next was the beginning of a chain of events spanning many years, ultimately culminating in me writing this blurb. Her blog, http://www.kenyanpundit.com/ proved to be one of the most interesting insights into the Kenyan condition that I had read in a very long time, if ever. I had planned to just casually glance at the first page, confirm my suspicions, and move on to my then budding passion for scouring the web for the gems that it every so often yielded.

That day, I went no further. I had found a jewel embedded deep into the endless pages of drivel that the web, already in its much talked about second incarnation, had spewed. I read every bit of this blog with increasing respect for the clear and eloquent Kenyan Pundit and her varied viewpoints and, even at that stage, already hoping that we would never meet again. And if we did meet again, I hoped that she would not remember our conversation. I’d been an absolute idiot that previous day at the airport.

A few months ago, I met up with the Kenyan Pundit in roughly similar circumstances to the ones surrounding our first meeting many years prior. Good friends and beer once again mixed very well.

She had gone on to do even bigger and better things on the web and so, after the usual ribaldry and jokes about short men, the conversation quite naturally moved on to new trends in social media. We shared our thoughts and experiences on how we used platforms like Facebook and Twitter and armed with the teachings of experience, I managed to keep my tongue in check this time. I think.

Anyway, as the conversation flowed on and caution faded, I inexplicably reminded her of our very first meeting and what I’d said about blogs. To this, she responded with a smile and said, “I’m very glad that you still remember that day. What do you think about blogging now?” I sheepishly admitted that my opinion had changed somewhat and I think I might even have apologized for being such an ass. She then very graciously suggested that I start a blog of my own.

So, seven years down the line and on the urging of several other people I finally began my blog. I thought it fitting that I share this story about my first experience with a good blog and blogger and I tip my hat to those skilled in the art as I attempt to join their number.

Perspective, in the answers to questions like these will often yield an interesting contrast of opinions. There’s the parents opinion which is absolutely irrelevant and of no consequence whatsoever and then there’s of course the children’s. In this piece, I present only my two bits and will pretend my opinion matters.

Those of us who have small children will usually be jarred awake from that recurring utopian dream where you have no kids and that the weekend ahead is to do with whatever you please. It will often be the younger one priming the cockerel to announce the coming of dawn with that oh-so-familiar screech.

Thus my day begins. I pick up the screaming bundle of joy and stagger into the kitchen looking for the bottle of milk that will plug the daily distress call the child sends across to my very understanding neighbours. It works wonders and soon that smile that I love so much is beaming at me and my nerves begin to calm, bringing my body back from red-alert status to more manageable adrenalin levels. This moment of tranquillity as the sun rises is only broken by the bubbling sounds of smelly release from my diapered descendant.

Meanwhile, on the other side of my world, a separate battle is being waged. The second banshee has arisen and has immediately escalated events into running battles between himself and my fellow inmate. Skirmishes involving cereal and underwear happen across the previously sedate vista while I clean off the incredible happenings in number two’s nappy.

“Good morning”, she manages as she chases him brandishing a toothbrush.

When the sun finally clears the horizon, we’re seated sipping the first coffee of the day wondering how best to entertain our captors for the next 48 hours. We know full well that we must, once again, show courage and bravery, never flinching at whatever they throw at us and provide a unified front to the unrelenting onslaught that awaits us. I quickly wipe away a tear before my wife spots it. I’ve always admired her for her strength and patience but I can’t help thinking again that she might be fortifying her coffee with something on the sly. Smart lady if she is.

Nice fishy!

We eventually decide to do what we always do, which is whatever the kids want to do. This wisdom acquired from many days of getting things wrong has also shown us that anything involving dirt and danger will do very well for them. There’s a nice restaurant at the beach in Hout Bay that has a huge sand pit which promises all sorts of peril and adventure and provides just the right mix of thrills to keep them interested for a while.

We set our minds to breakfasting there with the only problem being that it only opens at 10 am and so we have to contain the storm in the house for a few more hours.

The weekend will pass with us trying to direct or contain the inexplicably boundless energies of our charges in all sorts of different places like this. Sometimes we meet up with other parents and let the kids pit themselves against each other for a while. This is always very nice for all involved and I only wish we could do it more often.

To the inexperienced, this might sound like the beginning of a weekend from hell and wonder why anyone would willingly choose a life like this. This smorgasbord of intrigue, smiles, smells, amusement, amazement, bewilderment, laughter, tears, dampness and innocence is of addictive characteristic and though I curse the rising sun every Saturday, I look forward to every weekend with the children.

If you do not have small children of your own, then the best thing to do on Saturday morning is to wake up smiling, give yourself a pat on the back before proceeding to do whatever it is that you like to do. Twice even. But know that you are missing out on what is easily the greatest experience in this life.

2010-07-23

October 2006, Lilongwe, Malawi.

Sitting at Malawi’s Kamuzu international airport in this year’s already singeing summer has me bored, constipated and wishing I was somewhere else. I’ve been dropped off an hour and half early and am finding it difficult to breathe. This has nothing to do with my premature arrival, but with a rather wild weekend in Nairobi a few days prior that will remain a story for another day. I’m on my way back home though, which is good.

The reason I’ve whipped my laptop out is really a mixture of envy, nostalgia and arrogance.

I’ve just been watching someone whom I think to be a Malawian on his way out of his country for the very first time.

He is roughly in his mid thirties and is wearing a green disheveled suit that he will not be remembered for. He has clearly been wearing it a long time. A couple of days I would think.

His shoes though, are an entirely different matter. They look brand new and have no trace of wear save for the shallow line of dust along the bottom half of the sole. They are what cause me to notice this otherwise quite ordinary fellow. They stick out like how a rhinoceros would in…well, just like how a rhino sticks out wherever it is.

The shoes are also quite bright yellow as if in defiance to his dull green suit. Were it not for those shoes, my encounter with this man might have gone otherwise unreported. Quite arrogantly I think that those shoes are that man’s sole and only claim to fame.

He is accompanied by an equally nondescript man in his sixties and a younger fellow grunting under the weight of a humongous suitcase. The “tote-wallah” deposits the case on the scales at the check-in counter and the numbers spin. Unsurprisingly, Mr. Shoes is seven kilos above permitted weight and an animated discussion with the uninterested Air Malawi girl ensues. The end result is that he comes back to the queue with his entourage and they open up the case to see if they can trim some of the extra weight off.

Tote-wallah is exceedingly resilient for a man of his slight stature and executes the procedure with deceptive ease. Soon, the excision is ended and a five kilo bag of Iwisa maize-meal flour has been removed and indifferently sits on the floor beside the queue just ahead of me.

If you’re not African, then you might not know that maize-meal is used to make ugali (or pap, nshima or sadza depending on which part of the continent you come from) and forms the cornerstone of the typical sub-Saharan diet. It is a great injustice to separate a man from his ugali and I can almost swear I saw Shoes wipe away a tear

The check-in procedure is however then flawlessly concluded and the man disappears from my view and on to the rest of his life leaving his family to deal with the surrendered excess.

He and his yellow shoes, however, linger in my mind.

Having completed profiling him, I step past the huddle around the maize-meal and check myself in to then find a quiet place to muse on what I’d just seen.

I conclude that this man had been accompanied by his father and a relative to the airport in Lilongwe from some far and unpronounceable section of Malawi and was on his way for the first time into Johannesburg to seek his fortune.

The suit gave away the fact that he had traveled in it for a few days and it being high summer, the fact that he was from the breed of African who still maintained that one could only be truly dressed when one was in a suit.

This genus of African tends to occur more in the rural areas but can be seen in many urban settings displaying distinct characteristics that enable you to spot him from a distance. What had happened here was typical of a man who had left his village and yet somehow managed to take the village along with him.

I used to be like him when younger and always had a bag of beans from my mother’s little farm packed snugly in my suitcase.  I check myself as I realise that, in judgment, I have stumbled across what I have actually become; a man who is increasingly separated from his roots and this is bad.

I actually now envy his simplicity and wish I could be more like him again.

Maybe I should get a pair of yellow shoes.

2006-10-04