If you don't know it, then go ask your mother, Kenya died in the early nineties. Well, not died died, but when Moi has got a vicious arm around your neck and the World Bank's grip on your balls is tighter than the pliers of a Nyayo House torturer, then you are as good as dead.
There I was, transitioning from primary to high school with white-collar dreams as the only wind in my sails. Such is the folly of youth it blinded me from the fact that the formal economy was losing jobs by the thousands. Our parents, having been coerced into taking early retirement, took their golden handshakes and made a beeline for Dubai. They came back with panties of the same colour and television sets of the same make to sell to...er...who?
It is as they sat in exhibition stalls, in between long waits for customers, that self-employment quickly became a euphemism for unemployment. (Everyone you met on the streets was doing Biashara and, every one of them, was trying to pull a fifty out of you for bus fare). But maybe, as they sat in those stalls trying to keep up with the Onyango's, and the lower than cost price tags they had put on their Gushi hanbags, they wished they had followed Mr. Onyango's lead into sampling Mombasa's carnal delights. Do it, beginning with the more exotic thrills at the beach resorts, working down to no-frills Mtwapa and all the way down to Makadara Grounds, as their money ran out.
In the meantime, for those who still had jobs, a lot more shilling was paying for a lot less filling and only Chinese merchandise and the kadogo economy could save them.
Then the mid-nineties came. That age found my peers and I too wrapped up in our school work to see the anger and frustration that had consumed our parents even though the only thing it had left to gobble up was us. And it eventually did but at that moment we were looking forth into the future an unusual shade of hope glinting off our eyes. We were, after all, standing at the eve of our Tomorrow. The tomorrow that we had been harangued, ad nauseam, that we would be the leaders of.
Tomorrow came. The system spat us out, into the Kenyan economy. But the Kenyan economy had long found rigor mortis.
It has been over ten years now, for me since high school. Ten years of, at the risk of sounding fatuous, trying to play poker at the table of life with the foul hand that time, space and the circumstances of my birth had dealt me.
In those days, there were many of us running through this city, like headless chicken, trying to figure out the next step towards making ends meet. Ends that, somewhat, felt like they were tied to two bulls charging in opposite directions and us stuck in the middle. And all this while, more and more, like us and with the same dreams, were pouring into the city.
We did what work could be found, when it was to be found; we ate what there was to eat and often it was nothing. We spent so much time walking, searching for work, and then we spent a lot more time talking, for lack of gainful employment. Many of us turned to despondence, more and more turned towards illegitimate means of goal attainment. Those of us that had read a little bit more outside of the required readings in Nyayo Philosophy started to suspect that maybe that fellow Karl Marx was right, after all, and imagined ourselves the proletarian victims of a historically stratified society.
Suddenly, we wanted to know more; read everything that we had hitherto been disallowed. So we started to scrimp and save, cut deeper and deeper into our alcohol money- alcohol that was our primary escape vehicle from the harsh realities we were living in- in order to buy and rent books. That is how the thing that would later come to be referred to as the Potashian Book Club on this blog was formed. This of course being an abridged version that avoids details of our (or maybe mine, specifically) fallouts with individuals and entities that would, later on at the beginning of this decade, define the popular/ public perception of lower class youth in this city,
It is all a long time ago and some of those, at least those of the fifteen or so core members who have lived to see today, are no longer at the same place we were then. Not in ideology, in levels of desperation or even in a desire for a just world where everyone can find their basic needs fulfilled.
The only person, that I believe would still stand with me, (now, as then) and who would probably have been a far better chronicler of those days than I can ever be is Timi. But Timi is dead, having taken a stray bullet to the head.
Njane, Mumo and Vanga are dead too. But those ones took bullets (ten in Mumo's case) that left the Eldoret ordnance factory with their names stamped on. Dimosh (formerly of Dimosh's Kinyozi) died of tuberculosis last year- or AIDS related complications, if you insist.
Kari, as well.
Bobo is a mother of six and lives in Mukuru kwa Reuben with a paraplegic beggar. I am willing to take a DNA test to prove that none of those children are mine, a simple sight-test will tell you that they were not fathered by the man she lives with either.
Dan, Toma, Dudi and Jamo (not their real names) are in Kamiti. Or so I thought but I saw Toma, last week as I was taking the route eleven from Kangemi to Kawangware. I took a long pee behind a bush but felt terribly ashamed of myself later. But, frankly, I did not feel like I had something to say to him and neither did I have a fifty bob or so to give him for a Kane.
The only people left around that can afford more than just reminisces but also the time, and other resources, to write are Mambo, Dinda and NM.
Mambo got hit on by this American researcher who came down to the old neighbourhood to interview us on whether the music of the then wildly popular Hip Hop act, Kalamashaka, represented the voice (or maybe it was the political reawakening, no, it must have been Empowerment) of Nairobi's slum youth. She ended up with more than a PHD. One day Mambo brought her to the neighbourhood and they smoked tonnes of weed and flushed it all down with Napshizzle. Then he took her to the room, at the back of Mutua's kiosk, where we all used to take the girls that we figured 'deserved' to be shagged on a bed rather than in a phone booth. Earlier on in the day, he had borrowed a couple of condoms from someone and, with a drawing pin, put holes in them. Needless to say, all the condoms broke, that night but the girl was too lost in the rapture of drug enhanced ghetto sex to notice.
Next thing she knew, she was pregnant.
The American girl loved Mambo to bits and, even though she was not ready for that level of responsibility and commitment, she decided to keep both the boy and the baby. The next thing we knew, after a year of getting drunk and laid on her cash transfers, Manga was on his way to America. She invited him over for both a visit as well as, as she put it in an email to his recently opened email address, “...an opportunity to see, how we can make this work.”
He went over on a three month visa but by the time that was over, he had not only dumped the girl but also any idea, if such a thing could have existed in his mind to begin with, of returning to Kenya.
Mambo joined the ever growing horde of Kenyan baby daddies pursuing the burger-flipping dream and not paying a single cent in child support. We haven't spoken in eight years now but two years ago I got his email address from an old acquaintance and wrote him. He replied. The body of the email was blank but the subject line was a Western Union Control number. I shrugged my shoulders and collected 50USD. I still do not know where in America he is or what exactly he is doing there but every time I try to email an inquiry, he responds in the same way. And I collect 50USD. I just try not to make a habit of it.
As for N.M and Dinda, much has been said about them on this blog, it is unnecessary to repeat.
Unfortunately, Mambo, N.M and Dinda are the ones that were never really with us, ideologically. I am not just saying this with the benefit of hindsight but because I always felt it: these were people who the circumstances of physical and social proximity, more than ideological parallels, had thrown their lots in with ours. Or maybe there is a sense in what N.M said last weekend, when they had invited me to chew miraa with them at Dinda's Westlands apartment, “... it could be that it is easier to be drawn to Communism when you feel unable to access capital.” And they, somehow, accessed it.
Anyway, I write this now because I would like to read with you, my dear reader, the books we read way back in the mid to late nineties. Way back before the smart kids- the ones who could explain Dialectics- and the quick ones- the once who could raise a little extra money to buy the books- left the neighbourhood and we went back to reading out battered copies of Shakespeare and the Bible, and the occasional popular fiction. I can only hope that those of the original group- those that actually know what it was called back then- who can read and write will weigh in, with their opinions that a more educated than mine.
Maybe, I could interest you, the reader, in the books themselves. What I hope to do, though , is attempt a resurrection of The Potash Book Club. On this blog. Very soon.