PARSELELO KANTAI is a unique talent. One of the continent's leading investigative journalists; an intellectual of commitment and talent - and a fiction writer of true power. He has had a Reuters Fellowship for his nonfiction; was shortlisted for the Caine Prize for African Writing. He is presently completing an MFA in Creative writng from the
THE REDDYKULASS GENERATION
By Parselelo Kantai
“When the madness of an entire nation disturbs a solitary mind, it is not enough to say the man is mad.”
- Francis Imbuga, Betrayal in the City (Play, East African Educational Publications, 1987)
At a book launch in
Later, Ogot was instrumental in giving life to what was little more than a rickety idea: by textualising a national identity he and others poured an Afro-centric history into what had previously been a space colonised by whites. People crept out of the darkness of their imagined savageries. We, Ogot had long postulated, had not been invented; We were.
That such an obvious statement could be so transformative is difficult for me and people of my generation to fully appreciate. That people were validated, and at the euphoric moment of their validation – as the Union Jack fell and the Kenyan flag went up – were made to enter into a new enterprise:
We who were born under the Kenyan flag had listened to the propaganda of nationalism for so long, we internalised its cadences and often missed its import: that nations were built, were projects, ideas. We were its building blocks, constructing in the very enterprise of our construction; we were, as we so often heard, the leaders of tomorrow. We were raised on a diet of free primary education, mandatory mid-morning school milk and personal rule: whatever His Excellency through the Voice of Kenya and/or his domestic representatives (the parents) said was good for us. The Party was good but Playboy, for instance, was clearly not. So Playboy was banned and new party offices opened and those who sought out Playboy were bad and those who sang at the opening of the new KANU branch were good. I am simplifying of course, but living within the ubiquity of power made it impossible to imagine that your existence was in itself an experiment.
All around us, the experiment was going wrong. When I was 13, the Prisons Band – at the time His Excellency the President’s favourite – sang:
We are a loving nation
United and free
We are! We are!
We gonna tell it all again
Welcome to the
People are happy and are living in peace
Welcome to the
People are happy and are living in peace
Moi, Son of God
Moi, President of
People are happy and are living in peace.
The soloist of the Prisons Band was Kalenjin, from His Excellency’s ethnic group, an ever-smiling man with a gap in his front teeth wider than mine. He sang with a heavy accent that mangled English and caused us city kids much superior laughter. But His Excellency liked the band and the song was played over and over. We noted the mangled accent and therefore registered the words as nonsensical. Only later did I recognise their self-congratulatory import. His Excellency would often remind us that “
For the longest time, I had pronounced chaos as CH-A-O-S, had no idea what it meant. My mother is from
My uncle Miro Kasozzi, who taught my younger brother and I chess and had two degrees from the
These were stories from relatives who occupied a story-book reality. They smiled as they told us these stories, smiled that
I marvel at the ingenuity that it took to keep the project alive. The codes unconsciously communicated across the landscape of our earnest faces that prevented my Uncle Kasozzi from dragging us to the edge of the abyss from which he had only just emerged; the elaborate infrastructure of adult secrecy that ensured that in ignorance lay our childhood bliss. The nation was being built inside us. We were its unconscious laboratory. We needed to be protected at all costs. But it was also the age: His Excellency was the Father of the nation. We were all his children. The Prison’s Band sang ‘welcome to the land of Kenya’ bowed, boarded the green Prisons bus and went back to the office to torture some dissidents, misguided university lecturers who were being paid by foreign elements out to destabilise His Excellency’s government.
This was our real heritage, despite Professor Ogot: ritualised incantation with no meaning save for the inner logic of developing collective obedience. We were signs that signified themselves, and we were rooted in contradiction. Sons and daughters of the victors of anti-colonial struggle, the only reliable precedent for our ongoing invention was the colonial elite our parents had replaced.
And that was the problem. That at the age of 10, some 20 years after independence, I was sitting behind a desk that had been marked years before by a settler boy; the disused inkwell probably still contained ink samples from his Fountain pen. We had failed to produce new realities for ourselves. Along the way, the new African elite, so young and transcendent when they came to power, were now older and fatter, had lost their hunger. They were the Firsts: the first large cadre of Western-trained university graduates which, in the heady days of independence, filled the gap left by the departing colonial administrative bureaucracy. By the age of 30, many of them were sitting at the head of public corporations, running government departments, taking over senior management positions in multinational corporations. Doctors, engineers, administrators, others: they gave muscle to the rhetorical idea of Black Rule. Their extended stay in the West, their return trip with a rolled-up degree certificate and a graduation photograph, had given them Promethean reputations in their home villages. They were called mzee (old man) before they were 40. When they stood up to speak at local gatherings, entire locations fell silent; people cocked their ears and stared at their bare feet and tried to decipher every nuance and cadence in the great man’s voice. The great men lived in
“Perhaps it was not hate that drove us to fight the white man, but love: love for his things, his cars, his houses, his life,” observes the narrator in Ayi Kwei Armah’s novel on corruption in post-independence
On national days, we dutifully remembered the names of the original heroes. Cardboard characters who had lived heroically and died tragically at some point in a misty past, we only knew them as blank spaces for the end of term exam: Field Marshall Dedan Kimathi Waciuri was the ___ of Mau Mau. Mau Mau was the ___ of independence. History was one of several subjects to be conquered over three days of examinations. It had nothing to do with present reality. Words substituted meaning, and the past with its betrayals and accommodations, remained in the shadows.
So the past was out of bounds. And for good reason: who were our parents within the context of these huge betrayals? As benign and apolitical as, say, the pursuit of engineering or medicine was, what had they done to achieve what they had? How many spaces were left blank in their personal histories? Who had they betrayed? They had worked hard, they explained. And so we lived under a code of hard work. The pursuit of educational glory became our defining objective. Such arid values combined with the secrets of our parents previous lives produced in my generation, not curiosity, but a vast need to conform. Instinctively, we knew the consequences of unconventional thought. So we feared unbeaten paths, ideas that had not been endorsed by authority. When we were older and unable to find meaning anywhere else, we excavated the already hollow words of our education and, judging them to be valuable, the best of us laid them down as a foundation on which to live. That, ultimately, is the meaning of the story I am about to tell you.
My friend Bee was found hanging in her ground floor apartment in
I was not there. I was in faraway
She and Jane had known each other since their university days. I knew Bee differently. We had gone to the same primary school. Her brother was my classmate. We had lived for a time in the same neighbourhood. There had been many hours spent drinking and talking in what seemed to be several Nairobi incarnations: in our early 20s as students at the police canteen that was our neighbourhood local; as salaried folk, bumping into each other in bars and clubs downtown, a coincidence that on one occasion led me to Jane; even later, swapping invitations to parties at each other’s houses. There were memories of shared holidays and lazy Sunday afternoons. Oddly fixed in my mind is a photograph, vintage Bee, taken of Santayian, one-tooth old and in a yellow sweater knitted by one of her grandmothers, scrambling across the carpet towards the camera, screeching, her eyes sparkling with mischief.
I remembered other things: the funeral of another mutual friend, Betty, who, finally accepting her HIV-positive status and deciding to go public with it, had died a few years earlier. Her funeral service had been held at the church in which I had grown up. I remember another friend, the playwright Gichora, Bee’s and Jane’s year-mate at the University of Nairobi, who, refusing to accept that he was Positive, had died prematurely; going on anti-retrovirals would have been an admission to himself of his condition. Bee had worked with Gichora’s brother. Gichora and a cousin of mine were a couple until his death. And in the vines of our tangled relationships but cut off from the confines of
We used to joke that even when you did die in a car accident, it was probably still HIV-related. A suicide was so much easier to deduce; the act itself only confirmed lingering suspicions. AIDS was the silent guest at every death.
I bought a phone card from the Indian at the Off-Licence on North Oxford Parade and called Jane.
“Was she Positive?” I finally had the courage to ask after talking in circles.
“No,” Jane was emphatic. “She would have told me.”
“Then what was it? Why did she do it?”
Jane told me an implausible story. Bee was depressed. Depressed because she was in debt.
“Why didn’t she come to you if things were so bad?” I asked
“She had. She already owed me quite a bit.”
“I offered but she refused,” Jane explained. “She said borrowing would just depress her some more.”
Bee owed all her friends money.
She had gone quiet soon after Christmas, the last time I had seen her, back in
Her father was inconsolable at her funeral. When Jane told him what she thought – when she gave him an answer to ‘Why’ – he asked, broken, why Bee hadn’t gone to him. But who can explain how far away, how impossible to reach everybody is when you are down that black hole?
Beyond our grief and her despair – beyond our private Whys – Bee’s suicide seemed to suggest a larger failure. If, as Stalin had once infamously remarked, one man’s death is a tragedy and one million a statistic, what drama had my friend been involved in? On what canvas was her death painted? What was her ‘tragic arc’?
Let us pull out from the close-up image on that grim Thursday morning. In March 2005, the sunlight glinted off the dozens of brand new cars parked in Bee’s large apartment complex where US$ 500 a month secured you a prime piece of
Beyond the high stone walls that protect this semi-brahminic existence lie the questions – the street with its statistics, its faceless many, the potholes, the honking matatus, the rat-race towards rat-holes – questions we must answer in order to understand the state this enterprise called Project
But not so fast. You need first to understand how and where Bee fitted on that canvas. Bee was 36 years old, single and post-graduate, at the top end of that growing ‘demographic’ that
All around her, the old certainties were disappearing. Her parents, Luos, had retired to their upcountry farm in Nyanza after quietly distinguished careers in the civil service in
In the 1990s, His Excellency fell out of favour with his Western backers, and the privileges of an entitled elite two generations deep began to be shaken. The inalienable rights of the Firsts, the undoubted pedigree of their sons and daughters, their collective rights to the spoils of the post-colony (rural land, urban real estate, corporate jobs, resultant from years of cultivating the right accent); all that, as well as the old boy networks that secured those privileges, was profaned. The First Network, that of His Excellency and his tribesmen, was desperate for cash. Frozen out of the Paris Club – some dubious charge of trampling on human rights – and other western donor clubs, this network turned inwards and began cannibalising itself. It liquidated everything it could lay its hands on: rivers and road reserves were privatised; forest and wildlife parks turned into settlement schemes for its beneficiaries; public toilets and government houses disappeared, became shanty towns and apartment complexes, all property of mysterious new men with names that had no pedigree. Unprotected sex and AIDS became a metaphor for free-fall – for the unsheathing of the privileges of the independence elite and, as always, the victimisation of the citizenry in whose name this public shafting was conducted.
Certificates were condoms. But one also needed to know Who – more than How – could guarantee protection. Bee was prepared to sleep with no one, both literally and figuratively. She drew a line at that point. She had not been brought up that way. She had faith in merit. And so she drifted from job to job, assuming that she was not rising up the career ladder because she was restless, searching for that elusive ‘right’ path. She moved from the aid industry to the corporate sector, and back and forth and went to school at night. She was careful with her money and talented enough to ensure that there was always enough for rent and a little extra. Many of her friends left for the
In December 2002, a
Even as the propaganda of renewal, the busy-ness of cleaning up and sorting out, sounded from State House, the old politics of tribe and betrayal returned. President Kibaki suffered a stroke. His old friends, a group of businessmen, retired technocrats and politicos – the Firsts, in their mid-dotage – fenced off the Presidency and locked out the NARC coalition partners, including its chief architect, Raila Odinga, son of the old nationalist, Jaramogi Odinga, who was betrayed at independence.
Like the nationalism of the 1960s, the idea of renewal became farcical. An anti-corruption czar was appointed and run out of town as soon as he uncovered evidence of new corruption. Cabinet ministers gave TV interviews in the basement gymnasia of their new mansions as the press revealed fresh information on the latest corruption scam. As a sign of the new openness, the Mayor of Nairobi gave out his mobile phone number during a live FM appeal – he was appealing for patience at the height of a crippling water shortage.
Farce and cosmetics.
There was money everywhere and nowhere. Banks offered personal loans for the salaried as taxi drivers complained that even during the worst of the Moi times, there had been more business than there was now. New appointments in both the government and the corporate sector were heavily lopsided in favour of the President’s ethnic group.
Mortgage finance companies put the customer first and apartments rose like hosannas across middle class
At the beginning of the boom, Bee had an epiphany. She quit her job, sold her car and went to
Some months before she died, Bee was featured in Eve Magazine as “young, independent, female and entreprenerial”, the embodiment of the new woman that was the magazine’s target audience. It was excellent publicity for ‘Under Open Skies’. Still the business did not pick up. Somehow it wasn’t working. I met her less frequently now that I was no longer with Jane. But when we met, the usual
Bee killed herself out of shame. The shame and confusion of misplaced belief. Because, even after everything had changed, nothing had changed. After democracy and renewal and anti-corruption drives, after the privatisation of public services and collective dreams and the repackaging of tribalism as the victory of decency over grabiosis, nothing had changed. She had bought into the highest ideals of a sham project where public good was code for private accumulation and the acquisition of papers could never protect you if you were from the wrong tribe. Bee, a Kenyan, had not been designed to speak in ethnic code, had not been designed to ‘deal’.
The Reddykulass Generation’s central experience is survival: the informalisation of Kenyan life as the rickety idea of ethnic patronage began to wobble underneath its half-truths and lusts. The life that had developed at the margins gradually invaded the bankrupt centre. In place of the English and Kiswahili constituted as the main currencies in which life was transacted across the ethnic divides, we now spoke Sheng. A bastard mixture of the two and long condemned by officialdom, more and more Kenyans found themselves living within its fluid borders.
Bee loved writing and wrote short stories as a hobby. I had published a few of her stories at the various magazines I had worked for. But she got frustrated when, as was the norm at the margins of corporate
A few weeks after Bee’s death, I received another text message from Jane:
“Cn u imagin wht happnd? B 1 ths writing compe. Worth 200k. Cld hv srtd out ALL her shit!”
I have told nobody about this savage irony, those solitary head-banging what-ifs and the alcohol and hysterical laughter that I used to consume the news. And so we have to live with another secret. But also with the knowledge that the grand design of the project implanted in us was just that: a design. The project began when we started to tinker with the design.