The Short Rains
After college ended in early November and the students had left for their homes life in the compound of Holy Rosary College became quieter. I continued my lectures on using and administering Linux machines to my colleagues for a couple of weeks. After these sessions ended, my colleagues started drifting away to spend the holidays with their families back home. I settled into a routine of not waking up to a screeching alarm clock at 6:00 a.m. and listening to "world news every hour on the hour" on the BBC World Service.
The short rains that began in early November transformed the scenery. The dusty brown patches of bush changed into a verdant green. The grains of maize and beans planted a few weeks earlier germinated and shot up into healthy stalks. The unpaved road from my college to the main road turned to slushy quagmire. The open pit granite quarries were inundated into becoming ponds.
The yard surrounding my house became a jungle of waist high grass. I started wearing shoes before venturing into the yard to hang my clothes out to dry after I found a black foot-long snake crushed (and thankfully, quite positively dead) in the cranny of my front door. A rat started rummaging through my bathroom at night and taste testing my bar of soap (leaving teeth and scratch marks on it) to add to the excitement. One night I came face to face with him when I groggily opened the bathroom door and switched on the light. There in the corner staring at me was this furry rodent transfixed by the light. I can't say who was more scared.
When I want to use the facilities these days I walk noisily upto to the bathroom and bang on the door a couple of times giving my visitor ample time to finish his business and leave. I then open the door just a crack and peek to make sure there are no startled eyes staring back at me. I finish my business with a wary eye on the drain through which my visitor seemed to make his entrance. I wonder if the rat has a similar routine before entering the bathroom.
Off the Beaten Track
I ventured off the paved roads with Cyrus - a local Akamba friend. Cyrus, a colleague of the other VSO volunteer in Tala, grew up in the hills surrounding Tala. He is a teacher in a small children's center in the next town. Having worked with VSOs for the past four years, he likes volunteers. Cyrus and I have gotten into the habit of bicycling through the bush on holidays.
Once Cyrus took me through fields of maize and small coffee plantations to visit his mothers "shamba" (small agricultural field) where he grew up. Sitting on an improvised wooden bench underneath a mango tree watching the small rivulet flowing in the valley below I felt at peace. I realized that there were people in the developed world who would dearly love to live such a simple life. No mortgages, car payments and NASDAQ to worry about. I asked Cyrus why he left such a serene home to go live and work in a town. He said that if he stayed at home his opportunities were limited. He wanted to live a fuller life. He wanted to learn about life outside the shamba. I realized how universal the habit of envying the grass on the other side really was.
Richard and Rashomon
I met Richard one day walking back from the market. He was a young man of about 20 talking to one of our students. We greeted and Richard seemed to be fascinated by a foreigner living and working in Kenya. I grew a bit wary when our conversation turned to religion. "Where do you pray?," Richard asked. Not wanting to offend someone I just met with my atheism, I said I prayed at home. Richard seemed unconvinced and dubious.
I met Richard again one Sunday evening. After exchanging pleasantries the small talk meandered to the topic of religion again. Still not wanting to offend him I said I was a Hindu. "Do Hindus go to church?," he asked. I patiently answered with generalities. "Do you worship the same god as us?," came the question. I waffled with how there are many paths that lead to the same lake. Richard wanted to know if Hindus had a bible. I said that the Hindus had many holy books. "Is it the same as our bible?". This question proved to be the last straw. I lost my patience. I seethed with rage temporarily forgetting that he did not belong to a proselytizing Middle American denomination. "Why do you assume yours is the The Only God? Why do you believe it is only your Book that has the truth?," I snapped. Richard was visibly shaken by my outburst.
Only as I got to know Richard better did I understand that his questions were asked out of a genuine urge to learn and understand. The more I spoke to him, the more I understood his fascination with religion. I learnt that Richard was born before his mother was married. His stepfather disliked the fact that Richard, unlike his siblings, was not of his own flesh and blood. He mistreated him and refused to send him to college. Unable to put up with the shabby treatment Richard left home and now ekes out a living in Tala. He survives by doing odd jobs. Religion - especially the Catholic Church - has been his refuge during his trials. He confessed he was trying to become a catholic missionary priest. I felt sorry to his story and my earlier outburst. I tried to boost his morale with words of comfort and support.
Through a strange twist of fate I found out that Cyrus and Richard had gone to the same school. Wanting to research Richard's background some more I asked Cyrus to tell me more about what he knew. What emerged was a re-run of Rashomon. Cyrus' story of Richard differed from Richard's own version in minor and some major details. As far as Cyrus knew, Richard has just one sibling (Richard told me he had four). It was Cyrus' opinion that Richard could make a living through farming and menial work if Richard wanted to. But it was Richard's dislike of soiling his hands that was the source of Richard's problems and unrealistic goals of wanting to have the ultimate desk job there was - becoming a priest.
The saga of Richard, like the Kurosawa classic Rashomon, is complicated. I have decided not to come to a conclusion about Richard. Truth, after all, is not black or white but a shade of gray.
The biggest piece of news over the last couple of months in Kenya was the elections held on the 27th of December. A few days before the elections the VSO Kenya office was constantly on the phone to me reminding me not to be in urban areas. The violence that accompanied the elections in '92 and '97 was their reason for concern. I spent Christmas and Election Day in a remote farmhouse in the middle of a tea estate. The estate belonged to a rich Kenyan friend of an ex-VSO volunteer. We watched elections with trepidation on the telly. The 27th came and passed without major incidents. The Kenyans I spoke to were surprised by how peaceful the election this time around was. The opinion polls predicted the opposition's Mwai Kibaki winning the presidential race and a parliament hung between the ruling KANU and opposition NARC.
The results started flowing in on the night of Dec 28. My friends and I were glued to the TV watching the unfolding story. My friends back in Tala - NARC supporters all of them - started sending me sms messages of joy. Kibaki lead the presidential elections by over a million votes. His NARC party was also wining a sizeable simple majority in the parliament. Even the poll observers led by Kennenth Kaunda in a Carter Center t-shirt agreed that the polls were free and fair.
Kibaki was sworn in hastily on Dec 30. The crowd that turned up to watch and cheer the change of power at Nairobi's Uhuru Park was estimated at half a million - a significant portion of Kenya's 10 million electorate. The ceremonies were supposed to start at 8:30 a.m. All the three TV channels were confused about what exactly was supposed to happen and when. The hand over of the reins - for the first time in Kenya's history - happened at 1:30 p.m.
Every Kenyan I met was visibly happy that elections had been peaceful and the transition went smoothly. Strangers I met in bars have bought me drinks when I told them I was excited about the changes happening in Kenya. The Kenyan shilling appreciated by three shilling to the dollar the day Kibaki was sworn in. After quickly announcing a relatively lean cabinet the NARC government seems to be getting down to business. Ahead of them is the grueling job of delivering on their campaign promises of free primary education, affordable health care, better roads, better economy, more jobs and a crackdown on corruption. Much to my surprise positive steps are being taken to achieve these goals. When schools opened on Jan 6th primary education in government schools were free. The Health Minister has ordered those who owe money to hospitals to leave without payment.
The End of Kitu Kidogo?
Let me end with a small, yet significant, illustration of the changes that have taken place here. Mid-way between Tala and Nairobi flows the Athi river. There used to be a police checkpoint on the bridge on the river. Buses, mataatus and other public transport vehicles were stopped at this checkpoint for "inspection". Fifty and hundred shilling notes would change hands snuggled between the pages of the driver's license. A day after Kibaki was sworn in, the police stopped flagging down vehicles. In a couple of days even the checkpoint disappeared.
A beautiful illustration of how Kenyans are realizing that they have the power to change things is an incident I read about in the papers. Irate passengers in a bus beat up a police officer that was demanding a bribe. They confiscated the crumpled 50 and 100 shilling notes that they found on his person and donated it to the local children's center.
Kitu Kidogo ("something small") has been a bane of not just Kenya. Corruption has been crippling the economies of developing countries around the world. I am not naïve to think that corruption does not exist in developed countries. The corrupt in developed seem to take the cream leaving the milk behind to generate more cream. The problem in the developing world is that the corrupt take the cream, the milk and the bottle. It is not that countries like Kenya don't have the natural and human resources to become a developed country. The avarice of the corrupt has funneled billions of dollars out of the country. If the infamous, ugly and complex Goldenberg International scandal (estimated at 65 billion Kenyan Shillings) is any measure, Kenya can do much more for itself by fighting corruption. Hopefully the corrupt will realize that it is better to have sustainable corruption than to take it all.
I wonder if the police check points will come back. And when....