Monday, March 31, 2008


The higher you go the harder you fall. Here I am returned to the flat in the sky. Returned long enough to sign out; kiss the good times bye bye.

But first a party. A big party to celebrate my descent. In a few hours I will be down there with the masses. I am close enough now, to the masses, and as the clock ticks away, I begin to smell the stench of depravity and shattered dreams. My nostrils are inundated with the bitter-sweet stench of every-day-people Nairobi. Everyday, like I soon will be. Good bye tower; good bye drinks that come in glass bottles.

Tonight we drink, tomorrow we forget. At the dawn, the sun will rise in beautiful splendour. The serenity of the white clouds against a blue sky will find itself reflected in the pool. The trees will swing this way and that sending gentle ripples over the bird-baths. At noon the sun will move up the sky and while burning the meagre clothes off the backs of everyday Nairobians, it will find itself tamed and celebrated in this gated community. The neighbours will bring out their deck chairs, put their feet up on the porch walls and soak up the sun. I know they will do it, because I have always seen them do it; but I will not join them for I will be gone.

Good bye my serene Ivory Tower, let down the bridge over your moat for me. The real world awaits me. And thus passes my glory in your world.

Monday, March 24, 2008


Son, thou art ever with me, and all that I have is thine. It was meet that we should make merry, and be glad: for this thy brother was dead, and is alive again; and was lost, and is found. – (Luke 15:32, KJV)

In the old days, a son returning home was celebrated. The Kikuyu people did not celebrate with the slaughtering of a fattened calf, like the Jews of old, but they slaughtered a goat instead. But things have changed- in my part of the city, at least- returned sons get wary smiles and uneasy back-pats as their pockets get picked. Sons who return with empty hands get the cold shoulder.

I returned with empty hands. My mother embraced me. Tukutenderesa!

My mum sat on a stool outside her house. She was poised delicately, leaning over the charcoal brazier, with only two legs of the stool touching the ground. The stool's third leg jutted out of its seat at an unlikely angle- broken. Like dreams in this neighbourhood. The fourth leg was missing; gone for as long as I can remember. Like many sons in this neighbourhood.

“Thanks and praises to the almighty...” My mother yelled as she reached out to me her calloused palms touching my face. The stool tumbled over an edge of its seat hitting her unshod heel before finding the pebbled ground. In its rapid descent, the stool spun slightly and knocked over a plastic bowl of uncooked sukumawiki. “Welcome home my son...” mother said putting her arms around me. At that moment, the charcoal brazier she had been coaxing came to life. The measly bits of charcoal burst into low, dancing flames sending sparks all around us even threatening to set the palm fronds placed against the kitchen wall on fire.

It was Palm Sunday and this place was my Jerusalem. Would I last through Easter before the local chief crucifies me, for a crime I have not committed? I thought to myself.

“Where did you go to, Potash?” My mum asked her eyes squinted somewhere between joy and pent up concern.
“I have been around and about, mami... here in Nairobi.”
“So how comes you never came to see us, at all... did you move out of home and not tell me... is it a girl that kept you away from us; we that have always loved you?”
“What are you talking about mami? ...I was busy. Working.”
“What kind of work is this, Potash,, work, work..., for twenty four hours a day, seven days a week? Even muhindis give you a Sunday off, once in a while.”
“I cannot make you understand, mami, but that is what it is: I have been very busy. With work.”
“So you have money... you really need to give me some. Look at this house, this place... look at my roof... over there... can I tell anyone that my son is out there working?” My mum started to sob but could not stop talking. “... my son, Potash, all you are, I made you... and if you got married and didn't tell me, hmmm....”

I had no money and no girl. Not here not now. In the year and a half since I left this place, there has been money- not much, but a lot for where I am coming from- and there have been girls. But now I have nothing. How could I make my mum understand that I had done my best, at least tried to, in most cases, to make a better life for me and in the broader scheme of things, for them too? Here I was, with nothing, and yet I had done my best- in love and in labour.

I stepped out of my mum's embrace and stared at all of the horizon that I could see beyond the low-lying cluster of tin roofs. Dusk was creeping, rapidly, upon this neighbourhood. My mind wandered into the nights of a distant past. Nights filled with rancorous yells; muffled grunts, of both pain and pleasure. Illicit pleasure. Sobs of a two year old flower plucked. Some times the nights smothered you with an eerie silence. A silence punctured by gunshots and the wailing from the vigil of another son.

It is the vibrating urgency of my cellphone that brought me back to the living. I pulled out my phone. Flipped it open expectantly. Maybe someone, from the world I had left a few hours earlier- a world of affected conversations: the craft of writing and the proper use of a semicolon; construction and deconstructions of the 'other'; positive ethnicity and the role of the writer, over exotic cuisines, Scottish whiskey and South African wines- was inviting me back.

“Eiiii, nice phone, baba Potashi...” Karis, my brother's son, Exclaimed. “... ni ya camera, eh? ...Photo me!”
I could barely hear him as I brought up the phones screen to my face while fumbling with the 'answer' button.
“Hmmm, is that one of those people you left us for, ii? ... you know, Potash, and I have told you this many times before, the book of Isaiah tells us that blessed is the man that does not walk in the counsel of the wicked, nor stand in the way of sinners... those there friends of yours are nothing more than chaff in the wind...” she punctuated her sermon by brushing spit off the corner of her mouth with one hand and waving the other about to mimic the wind. “...but here son, in this house, no matter how much we use poverty to light the jiko, Jehovah knows our way. And our way is righteous. Stay here, with us, where you belong and the lord will make you like a tree planted planted by the water's side...”

It was not one of those 'sinners' calling, just a reminder I had set two days before. A reminder to go home today, no matter what. But I had remembered to come home and here I was. What I should have remembered was to tell someone- anyone- to call me and summon me out of this place. But who was there to tell, anyway- the writers I was walking away from or the the girls who had walked away from me?

The sound of thunder reaches us from a distance and above us cumulus clouds swiftly steal the sun's thunder. A drop of water lands on my face and then another and another in quick succession. “Come inside, Potash...” my mum whispers and I can feel the soft, kind pleasure of her hand on my elbow. “... I have to put something on the floor under the leaking roof...

...remember when you were very young and I left you sleeping alone in the house and went to the market...? ” My mum smiles into my eyes.
“Mami, I can never forget, that day... but I will never believe that it is the wind that blew away the iron sheet from our roof. Baba Njenga stole it...”

Monday, March 17, 2008


A mangy dog yelps past propelled by the sheer force of my boot against his backside. I pluck a leaf of nappier grass and use it to wipe a spot where the new and tan leather of my boot has been soiled by its collision with the dog. Well, maybe the dirt is not particularly evident but you can never be too sure in these places- what with rabies, tetanus and all.

I continue to walk down the slope. It is 2.00pm and the sun is perched high up in the sky leering furiously. Nairobi has been so hot lately but today it is scalding. Maybe it is this place. There are no swimming pools and trees and hyphenated cocktails here; those rose coloured glasses that turn the African sun into an endearing tourist attraction. In this place the largest water mass is a gallon-full and it is in a chang'aa brewery. The only trees, here, are burning: the charcoal and the marijuana.

“Potash....” It is some kid straight out of a Save Africa commercial. Too bad I have not brought my camera. That there would have been a great image for the blog. Nothing like a photo of a mud-streaked African child running towards a camera (towards the salvation that invariably wears a white face?), to get that hit counter dancing.

The kid runs towards me, his arms outstretched, his ribs pushing against his dark skin. It is the kind of moment that international careers; fame and fortune, are forged out of. Imagine the savage beauty of that photograph. The boy, caught in mid air and his smile photoshoped into an enigmatic grin, looks like an outcast grasping at the straws of the (international) community. His puny frame, his bare feet- everything about him, scabs, ringworms and all- captured in one frame. Africa freeze-framed.

“Wee, mtoto...Usinipake matope!” I yell at him while he is still at a distance from which I cannot see the ubiquitous skin lesions and fungal infections that mark childhood here.
“Mimi si mtoto... kwani umesahau jina yangu?” Damn it, it can walk and talk.

The child is so close now I can see his swollen eye. He parts the distance between us enough for me to recoil from his slum fragrance: urine and dirt. The boy is upon me but not before a blob of mucus can swing out of his nose and perch on the sleeve of my polo shirt.

“Baba Potashi...” he coos, his emaciated arms attempting but failing a stranglehold of me and his messy nose succeeding in grossing me out.
“Karis...” I say holding him by the arms, lifting him up and looking into his eyes.

The son of my brother is my son.

All my yuppie affectations melt away. Is this child me two decades ago? What chance, for a decent life, does Karis stand in this place? What can I do for him that would be worthwhile; more meaningful than all that sneakers, fresh fragrances and material bullshit? Love, affection, mentorship, what?

Karis' eyes lock with mine, the good one at least. I run my thumb lightly over his infected eye. It all reminds me of a time long ago when I sat in a corner trying to read for an exam. Only one of my eyes was working because I had caught an eye infection from my cousin who had caught it from our other cousin on and on ad infinitum. It is not the discomfort that I remember from that night though, it is that the lamp ran out of fuel. Such a long time ago, I mutter inwardly and hug Karis closer. Is there a me in him, I wonder

“...You have grown,” I say to Karis. I use that sing song voice adults speak to children with and it doesn't feel cheesy or awkward, to me at all.

I put him down and with his hand firmly held in mine we walk together into the sunset. Okay, okay... I put him down and we walk into that place I once called home.

Monday, March 10, 2008

POTASH PRESENTS: The Stories I Forgot

The best times blur in remembrance; it is the painful ones that have stayed with me. Long days of seeking and not finding; of empty pursuits thrust into perpetuity. Hard, cold nights of catching moonbeams through an ageing roof. Some nights the full moon, hanging low in the sky would turn an eerie shade of red, the wind would blow malevolently against the tin (or the mad and wattle depending on where we lived then) walls and dark clouds creep on the moon; smother her light and loll over the sky an ominous rumble in their wake.

Then it would begin to rain.

To remember it all brings tears to my eyes- these tears do not rain, they pour. In private, in between spotless white linen, I curl myself into a foetal position and let the sheets mop up more fluid than they have from all the trysts they have seen lately. Those are my only moments of truth; times when the uppity conversations in mood lit rooms are done and I have no one to go home to.

In those days, the conversations would have been vulgar- held in coarse tongues over ugali and sukuma wiki (a jug or two of Senator or a jik of Chang'aa as we grew older) but at least there would have been someone to go home to. You would always return to your brothers' drunken snoring as they lay sprawled over the Vono single-bed. Or maybe it was one of your relatives from the village; an old mate from high school. Someone. Sometimes all these people would be all in there, sober and hungry, hurdled over the charcoal brazier telling war stories. Other times there would be nobody and you hoped for the best: that at least they were spending a night at the police station.

The Police station... nyumba ya mawe kizee!

Yes and the police station came with security. Security from our biggest fear: The Police. If you were spending a night at the police station it meant that they had caught you alive. And that, I kid you not, was a rare occurrence. Most important of all, the police station, for those who know its ways, came with a guaranteed breakfast. Scalding tea and a measly slice of bread after a night of cat naps in a crouching position might not seem like much but it was divine compared to the air burger breakfast at home.

In the morning, the OCS (Officer Commanding Station) would put you to work sweeping the police station's compound and send you on your way. They knew those who could be bailed out and those who couldn't. And you knew that they wouldn't bother taking you to court on charges of 'idling' because that was a charge they preferred on those they hoped to extort money from. Money which they knew you didn't have. Set free you returned to the same emptiness- to the constant struggle in search of any means of escape from poverty. In most cases the only means to be found was through cheap drugs and alcohol.

I say these things now because the soft voice that has been whispering in my year for over a year has turned into a yell. When I started this blog, it was because of two things. First I knew I had a story to tell. I did not know how well to tell stories, as I do now, but I had more stories then than now. But stories do not go away, they live in our hearts but the desire to rewrite history and escape its lowest moments thrusts us into the murky depths of forgetfulness.

The story I wanted to tell was that of a mid twenties Kenyan guy trying to afford his next shot of moonshine; his urban escape vehicle. About the realities of a life of fruitless striving and the ways we tried to escape it. It was about how life was and still is in that small theatre of broken dreams that is our end of Nairobi. The story of an urban space and a people who only live in NGO statistics and the dispatches of foreign correspondents. I wanted to imbue this space with character, take away the jaded and callous ways real people were constantly reduced to objects to which a subject (war, hunger and pestilence) and a verb were added to complete that 'balanced' news story. I meant to take away the emasculation of a people through turning them into data that fit well into a pie chart in a funding proposal. I desired to translate the lived experience into the written word. Maybe in the process of transferring life into words, I would be discovered as a writer.

The being discovered as a writer was the second reason I started doing this blog. These days they call me a writer. But how can I be an accomplished writer while the story that made me languishes in oblivion? Without the Kenyan Urban Narrative, I am incomplete.

I write these words now because, lately, I have been thinking about truth and forgetfulness. The written word has been for centuries, now, the most efficient way of documenting and preserving truths. Books, nay, written words have an element of permanence, they immortalise the author and grow the database of the record of a human existence. Our existence. What is written now affects what we think tomorrow. Yet all that is written today is not of necessity true. And some of those falsehoods are peddled purposely. The purpose is never, out rightly, to deceive but merely to add drama to mundane experiences.

Mainly, I am talking about the Memoir here. It is amazing how many autobiographies are being called to question in recent times. Forget about the blatant inventions of Margaret Seltzer aka Margaret B. Jones in Love and Consequences, Misha Defonseca in Misha: A Memoire of The Holocaust Years, the Oprah-Bubble-Busting James Frey and the like but the accusations of embellishment and anachronism in say Ishmael Beah's A long Way Gone. If such accusations can be true, can these narratives be seen to have been ruined by a desire in the publishing world to publish what is sensational, if badly told, rather than what is mundane yet well and truthfully narrated? Are readers more interested in the humanity of their subject or in their celebrity, infamy and vileness? Are stories of every day, forgotten people remarkable out of once-in-a-while news features?

Can the Kenyan Urban Narrative be told for and as what it is- a lived experience- and continue to appeal to its audience and the world that does not know the story?

Most important of all, how much can its author remember? How much of story is there without the detail? Is the accuracy of time vis a vis incident relevant or is placing real incidents in wrong times a misrepresentation of fact enough to push the narrative into the realm of fiction?

Such have been my thoughts for long days. I have many answers from the ethical to the philosophical but what I have realised is that those answers are not necessary or in anyway related to what I set out to do. Not, at least, in the most fundamental of ways which is whether or not this blog can give voice to a disenfranchised majority. To my own self, then, I shall be true and return to the neighbourhood. Shed this ridiculous pandering for literary greatness that is lived more in association that in works published.

I am slipping out of the writers' network that has taken me into its bourgeoisie embrace. Now, I will jump back into the murky depths of Nairobi under-privilege where this writing business all begun. I seek to and hope to return to those days of striving and not finding. Return even in metaphorical ways: through memory and lucid dreams. I want to go back to those days, when the writing was cathartic. To that place where words were the best way to escape that low moment when the alcohol and drug buzz is worn out and you know not where your next high is coming from. I am going back to a time when I wrote and wrote, grinding pencil lead to a pulp and wearing out exercise book after exercise book right through to the margins just to still the demons and wait out the unpredictable, yet much hoped for, arrival of a psychotropic escape route from despondency.

I am going back to the Kenyan Urban Narrative. At least to the most of it that I can still remember.

Monday, March 03, 2008


These queer folks sure thrown down a cool party. Friday night and the first queer bash of the year is, finally, here. I have been waiting all week. I need to go because I have long run out of lube and it has been ages since I have seen more queer folk in a room that I got head rush.

It all began the other week, on Monday, when a little birdie whispered in my browser: Q-Bash on next week Friday. I called my people. Got confirmation- venue, ticket prices et al. But a party is not a party without an entourage, so I called my other people. My other people happen to be press so I called my people to vouch for them.

Then D-Day crawled upon us. Friday, February 29th. It was a busy day. I had this writers' support group thingie to attend, at the British Council, all day. It was one of the better ones, I must say, where you know everyone and you have read more of their work beyond what they are presenting that day. I have been a lazy one, you know, so I had nothing to present which is such a shame as it was the kind of writing that has a guaranteed publication and possible payment option. But, I think I am getting enamoured to the life of a struggling artiste: spend all your time between getting wasted and complaining about how hard it is to make money as an artiste in this country.

But I digress...

After the workshop I walked downtown with two of my mates and I made a meal out of a dead goat and some rice. Then some chick texted to say she had hit the airport and was cruising in my direction. “What's happening P, you going for the gay party or can I buy you some Ethiopian?”I assumed that to be a rhetorical question. Some truths, ladies and gentlemen, you have to hold as self evident, that queer parties and exotic dinners with heteros are not created equal. So the gay party it was, but not before some lame conversation was had:

“Niaje... niaje!”
“I am really dying for some Ethiopian food...”
“Pole...but there is some gay action to catch...”
“Sawa...but can we eat first?”
“Nope, I will not let your hunger eat into my crotch time...”
“But wait... you do white chicks and black guys, no?”
“I am a white chick...!”
“Nice, so we have to go find a black guy at this party so I can have me a sandwich!”
“Okay fine, lets go then... what is Ethiopian food anyway, isn't Ethiopia not more famous for the lack of food?”
“Hey, do not insult starving Africans....”

My retort was interrupted by the arrival of the rest of the entourage, to make up a party assault vehicle of: Potash, the, two girls, two boys and one homophobe. The homophobe had the ride, but it was my invite he was rolling on, so I threw my rule book at him,

“Dude, parental advisory, it is either you are in or you are out. I would rather you out but on the promise of good behaviour I will let you in.”
“Potash, us guys are miros, man.... this shit...”
“It is two ways here... and please, do not miro me... either you are in or out. If you are in, then it is quit-homophobia-cold-turkey-night for you.”

So he was in. And like that guy in the bible- Jesus Christ, or something- it is like I had said to him: Ephphatha, for behold, on that night the homophobe's eyes were opened.

Ahhh... I am too lazy to write these days but I need to keep this blog going. So this will suffice for this Monday's quota. I am off to the bar. Such is the life of the struggling artist.