Remember The Children Of Kisumo
Backtracking, that day. That day in October—the story begins here. It happened on this day, a queer, sultry day in October, the hottest day since 1963. Before nine in the morning, the Lake Victoria freshness that somehow seeped in overnight evaporated like the dashed hopes of a fisherman with poor catch. The baked streets wavered in the sun, the mabati roofs of houses sizzled and the shirtless men in them and their women wearing nothing but lesos tucked under their sweaty arms, and their snotty-nosed children clicked their tongues, and the dry, cadaverous dust blew into people’s eyes and down people’s throats. Even the crops in the fields and the ditches beside the pot-holed municipal roads looked parched and poorly. It was the worst year and we were sad. We were not sad because nyamami and mamba fishing canoes had done yak shaving in the lake this month, as was the cry of the fishmongers. And nobody’s cotton farm had yielded poor harvest, so the big profits of spinning stuff in the Kicomi Factory were still there, and there was so much cotton in their warehouses at Bandani gathering dust.
People of Kisumu were sad. This year had gone unabashed. It was a very bad year, bad. It was bad a year made bad by words and deeds of men of politics. We were not sad because sirkal, the government, was punishing us because of Oginga, that one we were now used to the way a fisherman is used to the buttocks of his fellow fisherman. Ja nam ong’iyo gi olund wadgi, a Luo fisherman will always say.
People read newspapers and listened to the radio, and the fusty, fish-smelling market women of Pandpieri, with odheru and adita reed baskets on their heads and babes on their backs, talked, “beating mbaka” and asking questions as they walked to Nyalenda, Manyata and Kibuye, and asked, what is it that makes the people of Kisumo so sad? It was the dammage we had suffered that made us so mad.Look what can happen in this country, they said. Thu! Rateng ging’ielo gi sude! Yawa! A gentlemen in his three-piece suit is just killed like a dog! They were talking about the loss we’d suffered. The worst thing in the world happened just three months ago. They shot our Tom Mboya in Nairobi. In the street. In the street! They shot him. Who was Tom Mboya? Kenyans have now forgotten, yawa. so sad. This was Tom Mboya, don’t you know it? A great man. A hero. An enigma. A brainy man who once walked on this earth and spoke English like a White man. More saddening was not about the men who killed him, but the way they they did it. That was the loss that made us so mad. So mad my father wanted to walk to Nairobi and pick up one of those mousy-looking little zombies and kick his soul to smithereens. It felt like yesterday; our hearts were still heavy and we were in fits of depredation that, well, to tell the truth, was beginning to depress us.
We couldn’t wait to step into 1970 and forget. But we were not sad because of Mbuya, we were mad for another reason. Kenyatta was coming to Kisumu today. October, 25th. My friends Magak, Lumumba, Oliech and Otieno Kachweya came and we went. we went to Russia. We went because our teachers ordered us to go and sing for the President.
My name is Rabala Ochogo son of Abade, a fish a long way from water, standing by the buckboard, with his long tough looking fingers, leathery seeming, his flesh was. A boy of the sun and the lake, I am full of myself. I am a Kisumu kid of the lake who loves watching watching the ladies remove their crude or fine cotton clothing and dip their skins in the water to wash Pandpieri off their skins with toyo bar soaps. On this day I was watching men and women in katera shirts and shot dresses, men wearing akala sandles, their othith hats shading and shadowing them from no sun at all, the habit of wearing their best on the President’s day to open Russia, and finery from the Indian stores, the ones who could save for months to afford, as if good cloths was all that was keeping them from being swallowed up by the dust all around them, ready to crush them, to rush into this little scallop of civilization and turn it into a fondly remembered dream of dust one more time.
We were up in Kibuye this Saturday morning, glooming to each other, badmouthing the teachers who caned us, and sassing the politicians. Magak was cynical about authority in any form. I, on the other hand, had a knee-jerk fear of Kenyatta based on Senior Chief Ogwang’s tendency to send his “youths” to clobber people in Nyalenda and Manyata and Pandpieri and Kondele... in the villages and in the slums of Nyawita and Obunga. I saw some notorius Ogwang men in the crowd and remembered what my father had said. Some suit-wearing Okuyu old man with the crown and guns (his term) will come to Kisumu to weasel and wrestle a bright working man like Oginga out of the love and support from his people. He would try and mess things up in Russia. Somehow or other, he had
put the shadows in us and was in the process of taking the sun, wan
glowing red of some memory of sommerset, of Kisumuans into himself.
“Something bad is going to happen.” I said. My voice broke a bit. I was more than worried. I was scared. “My father said.”
“How did your father know?” Oliech asked me like he would ask, “Is the moon is going to be a full one tonight?”
I glared at Oliech and it occured to me how much I hated these kids from Nyalenda. But Oliech, last name of Obong’o, and a watery boy of Nyalenda, son of Okech the fisherman, was no fool. I thought the first time I saw him, his face seeming a bit pruny, as did his fingers, as though he really came from the lake, the brine of which I thought I could detect in his presence, as though he were the waves off a shoreline town of soft pastel hues, from which, out in the distance, there was the sound of lonely, the sound I always imagined the lake making.
“My father is a politics man. He works for with the great Oginga. He has shaken Oginga’s hand. We have a framed photo on the wall of our sitting room with them shaking hands.”
“The only hand your father has shaken is that of your pregnant dog,” Magak leered. “Or the greasy hand of Mad Omin Onang’o by the waterside at Dunga.”
Oliech, Lumumba and Otieno Kachweya laughed heartily. Omin Onang’o was the market madman who plied Pandpieri and Dunga roads with a sack on his back. He dwelled mostly at Dunga. Kids had longed thrown questions at him in sing-song fashion and he answered, and the the call and response had over the years turned into a rhyme that went like this:
Ja neko, nyingi ng’a (Mad man, what’s your name?)
And he answered: Ma ing’eyo pile cha (You already know)
So the call-and-response song went like this:
Ja neko, nyingi ng’a (Mad man, what’s your name?)
Ma ing’eyo pile cha (You already know)
Ja neko, nyingi ng’a (Mad man, what’s your name?)
Ma ing’eyo pile cha (You already know)
Ja neko ani nyisa anyisa, orwenya (Mad man please tell me, I forgot)
An to nyinga Omin Onang’o (My name is Brother of Onang’o)
To say omin is to say brother of. Otieno’s laughter annoyed me. So I decided to scold him. “Inyiero ang’o, nyathi ma piere dongo ni. What are you laughing at, you big ass kid?”
“Ng’ong ne,” Otieno urged me. “Give him a rude eye rebuke.”
I made a rude face, pulled down my lower eyelids. “Ng’ooo.”
Magak leaned his head close and spoke, like a whisper. “Something bad is going to happen here. Ne achwanyo acham. I hit my left toe on a rock.” And I knew at that second, that instant, that trouble was in the offing here in Russia. My father, unbeknownst to them, had made similar predictions. Certainly not anything bad, worse. As Magak said, in that bad South Nyanza accent that sounded to me like the deep gabble of Bantus learning to speak DhoLuo, that were such a novelty for us down
here in Kisumu, “We need to leave this place. Sani sani. Now.”
So quickly and nonchalantly spoken. The statement was, at least, if clumsy, apt, because suddenly I was scared. I was thinking. Life has always been scary for me. People have always
frightened me. I keep waiting for the other shoe to fall. The ax to
drop. In this, I’m usually not too disappointed. But just as he was the first one to start the joke, Otieno ended it, backpedaled, and said, “Let’s go home.”
And Lumumba, to his everlasting credit, did not laugh, but looked at Magak steadily like he thought he was nuts -- took a huge step forward. He loved the feeling of being so near President Kenyatta. He switched to Kiswahili, and said, “Tuimbe. Let’s sing.”
So we opened our mouths and sang. The jakaranda gave poor shade, but we already had our shirts off so we wouldn’t sweat them up too bad while we sang. We were singing Kenya Nchi Yetu Tunaipenda Sana on the side of the lam road near Kibuye like ahuja and waving. I can’t quite tell you it was fun. It was enough that Our President here in Russia this day doing doodly-squat and wearing Oginga’s nyagwenda toko e wi ng’ato skullcap. The great and legendary Oginga ma nyaka nene was up about the place too and in a foul mood. The air was hot in this place. It smelled of sweat and desperation and terror. We were singing, but with these two mighty men, things were still and tense. They were looking at each other, mongoose to snake, and exchanging bad words, who was who? To say the least, it was intriguing. The crowd waited. The air was generated with electricity. Everything was pop and snackle. Russia was the stage, with the school kids the orchestra of horrors and the undecomposable Kisumuans the captive audience. Picture the vista: the starch smell of the sun-baked bodies and the grumbling and the sweating in the hot sun here at Russia—the fish eyes all round the two giants—the stables of hands that linked to hands that trembled with breaths held and eyes looking for the strongest of the two dumes—the bickering of favours done, the favours returned; one saying I made you and the other saying, yeah, and I paid you. Fevers and triumphs and what vulgarities could count inside these exchanges of words over the music insultingly loud and scaring us to death. And it was all geared to who’s on top in this kingdom of Neo-colonial nincompoops—politics and power. Magak whispered, “And what if everyone’s wise and everyone is trying to top the other by being the terrified and the victor and then reversing the role—it’s little more than Muhammad Ali and Sonny Liston boxing each other.” Sing, we were told. Imbeni kwa furaha. And we sang, our tongues held at the wonder degree, tips out.
But the party was over.
The mongoose snarled and the snake hissed.
Kenyatta’s voice boomed like Lwanda Magere. “Kama yeye naleta nyoko nyoko, nitasiaga yeye kama unga. If he dares me, I’ll crush him like maize flour.”
There was a sound. There was thunder in the background. And then the depths of hell. It didn’t matter if it was heavenly thunder or part of the droom droom sound machines of the matching police band, base, brassy and metallic and black-sounding with fervent colours. Still and blossoming. Everything was static and staccato. The sound broke the harmony of ten thousand singing voices and broke hell loose.
Bang! Then another. Bang! Twah!
And more. Bang! Bang! Bang! In rat-a-tat rapid fire.
The melancholy and forlorn, the frenzied ditz heads and the muscle men who found their hearts, not to mention their tiny brains, the weakest muscles of all, raised the barrels, aimed and pulled triggers.
The situation was—according to Magak, dire. He grabbed me by my shirt collar and sent me flying. “Run!” He then grabbed Lumumba and hurled him on aputh njiri sprint too. I pulled the fat Otieno Kachweya. “Ringi!”
We ran. Screams erupted suddenly, tore into the cheer-laden air and started lashing out loudly, propelling me to bolt faster just as a gray cloud of confusion closed up the roadside to Russia. I saw Magak’s afuong’o shorts swirl as he dived through a small opening in the ojuok fence, his shoulder hitting/ skidding on the ground. We dived too. The fat Otieno Kachweya’s mass couldn’t fit in the opening and his ti apiel nade dungaree got snarled up with ojuok twines. We grabbed his arms and pulled him through.
Magak came up with a stout tree limb and bashed the first higher vertebrate he landed into. He spun around, rolled double on his feet and scurried away. I followed. Lumumba followed me. Kachweya scrambled up behind us, huffing and sweating.
Bang! Bang! Bang! Twah! Twah! Twah!
And suddenly everyone was running ateng’a for their lives. People were running ateng’a in all directions. A man running ateng’a is a man running helter skelter as if one thousand nyawawa demons are chasing him. The air was filled with swishing sounds over our heads. I saw two fellow standadi 4 pupils fall onto the ground, but I couldn’t stop to help them. The sound of blasting terror was getting nearer and nearer. I looked back and saw a long convoy of fast-moving cars and army trucks rushing towards Nyamasaria and Ahero on the bang-up Nairobi Highway. Pupils, some hurt and bleeding, kept falling down as we continued to run through the town towards our school.
And I saw how Russia fell into a deep rapturous clandestine huddle, as it tumbled way below the earth to the other side. Chaos started. Confusion set in rudely… lots and lots and lots (and lots!) of disorder crushed in with crying and groaning and wailing and mad running. The air was jazzed with the electricity of sirens and people wailing in the air. A huge KA bomber plane soared rumbling overhead. Ndek jolweny, the kind we usually saw at Kandege. Pupils were screeching and screaming and running amok. Dogs were barking, and cows were mooing, and goats were bleating. The skies, too, had taken on a strange colour.
The sun looked down and got so scared it hid behind the clouds. Turning around, I dashed my foot over a tree limb, which snagged me, spraining my ankle somewhat as well as pinning me. Suddenly, a major disturbance erupted—an ugly noise of something terrible coming like a great snake. Lumumba shouted. I barely had time to duck out of the way, seriously wrenching my ankle as I did so. I rolled over and pressed my back against Magak and Lumumba. We grabbed Otieno Kachweya and pulled him against us. It came close! It was a truck. A big truck, not one of those big yellow MOW apida trucks, no. This one was a huge over-sized army truck. And watch out! It was going to run us over. I struggled wildly like an animal in a snare, pulled my foot loose and rolled double. The behemoth Mercedes Benz truck roared past with its rack blaring fire and belching smoke and dust. In it were men in army uniforms with guns, firing. The men shrieked and made horrible hissing sounds. Along with the shrieks, they sprayed bullets on us school children.
“Who are those? What are those things?” asked Lumumba in an excited girlish voice after the thing had passed.
“Soldiers. Guns,” Magak decreed. “Run.”
As we took to, something suddenly fell in front of us with a plop. It was a black plastic can. It fell with a warbling sound and started fizzling and producing a lot of smoke.
“Tear gas!” Magak shouted. “Tear gas!”
More cans landed like handfuls of locusts. Like hail. Pup! Pup! Pup! They were burbling and splattering, making sounds like a pissing cow. They were covered with a reddish funky slime like loose wuoyo cowshit; they were gross and speckled with dark specks and smelled horrendous like those burst MCK sewers near Anderson. The air started to stifle and became unbearable as teargas enveloped the whole town in a deep crust. A sheet of ominous locusts, more like. People were wheezing and sputtering, gagging and choking. I’d heard of tear gas before, had seen them in mobile filims at Nyalenda Railway open grounds. Didn’t ever dream I’d have these horrifying things thrown at people here in Kisumu. Didn’t believe they were real. We were wiping our eyes and coughing our lungs out. Men were on their hands and knees sputtering, cursing and coughing and hurling.
Oliech picked up a small Kimbo tin and hurled it at the firing men as the truck drew away. That act caused him his life.
“Wajinga nyiyiny,” he shouted. And his saying that, the men with guns killed dead. Something hit him and he fell, and made not a sound as we stood by his falling body before the roadside, the school kids and the gunmen, like offal flies kalooming to the smoke and the chaos, all their cliches and their one liners and their judgmental superiority.
It seemed so surreal.
My mouth hung open for the longest time as I watched Oliech fall. You know that sticky-icky dry mouth taste you get when your mouth hangs open big enough for the Kenya Air Force to land their plane in? When Oliech hit the ground—it was a startle and then the discovery of the ickiness in my mouth was blood. Blood filled my mouth as I had bitten my tongue the moment the bullet hit Oliech’s head. Screaming to that level where dogs could only hear, Oliech screamed into oblivion. The ear piercing scream filled the still air as our friend screamed his last breath. Oliech son of Okech, son of Kamangi’yo died that way, killed away by morons who only knew how to use guns on children of Kisumo.
I made to hold Oliech, to stop him from falling. Down we went. Magak flung his head as a wave of nausea swept over him; Lumumba was shock-struck, his big eyes rolling in terror. Otieno Kachweya bared his teeth and hissed and remained like that for the longest time, a permanent prelude to a scream. And there was no magic in the world now too in these gunfires of Russia and how they could shatter dreams. I remembered... Oliech had dreams. He loved books, he loved school, he loved being happy and bright and giggling, and told often day after day that he was never popular in school, that he didn’t have many friends, but he was going to read books hard and be a doctor in Russia one day. Which astonished me. And shocked. How could he not have? He was liech and anyone who did not want to be around a boy like this, these children were fools of the Nth degree. He told me in the bushes of Pandpieri and I let him ractice being an adult, and a doctor treating people, cladding an old cotton bedsheet for an overall, using oboke leaves and ali thorns as his needle and napkins. I told im he let me for the first time experience adolescence and childhood that I had never had the chance to before, for I had always felt like an adult even as a child.
Another bullet hit close. Magak kicked hell. My eyes bulged out. I was in shock—dire detrimental shock. Lumumba lost his ability to breathe. Otieno Kachweya went ballistic, tears bathing his face, othinyo oozing from his nostrils. I clenched my eyes, and threw my arms in the air, waving around like a drunk Pandpieri man, and then I fell down to the hot buggy grass. There was nothing we could do about this nightmare. Trying to gasp was no use. Trying to gag was no use. Trying to scream was no use.