We have moved on from the Information Age and are now in the Experience Age, where what one does not feel or share does not count. Therefore, I share the glimpse of my thoughts on why we are yet to appreciate fully, a great Kenyan who not so long ago lived among us; how much the passage of time can make us reflect and understand what was not obvious just a few years ago.
It is a Tuesday morning, and I have to attend a meeting in Thika. With only 50 minutes to go, I get into my car in Kilimani and race towards Thika road. I encounter a huge traffic jam after exiting Riverside Drive and have to negotiate my way - vehicle by vehicle- from one side of Chiromo road to the other. It is 8 am and the traffic jam is the worst I have ever encountered there. It is being exacerbated by the construction of the Expressway, which is at its peak. The dusty section is forcing me to leave the car windows shut, and my facemask down to gasp as much air as possible under the circumstances.
Matatus do not make the situation any better. They are closing in quickly on any gap that opens up, and I have accepted that my car may not complete that section without a scratch. I curse continuously, asking whether anyone cares about traffic and environmental management plans during construction. I am aware I have to maintain my cool at whatever cost, but being alone in the car, struggle to calm myself down.
Unfortunately, the car is blaring Bob Marley’s Redemption Song, having picked it from my phone’s iTunes library: “.. emancipate yourself from mental slavery, none but yourself can free your mind..” then goes on “.. how long shall they kill our prophets, While we stand aside and look…” Deep in my subconscious, I can feel the song creating flashes of anger; an image developing of myself marching with Jamaicans in Trench Town, shouting “black minds matter,” as we hunt those enslaving our kind.
I quickly realize the song is only enraging me further. I switch to Tom Paxton 1966 single - The Last Thing on My Mind. This does the trick of calming me down. After almost twenty-five minutes of driving through only one km, I exit the section without a scratch! Wow! Peace has now returned and in a big way too! My mind, now freed from the hustle of Chiromo Road, can wander and marvel at the creations of nature and of human beings.
I enter Prof Wangari Maathai Road, named after one who resonates with greatness whenever mentioned. This time, it strikes me that Prof Wangari might have been the best thing that happened to Kenya over the time the country has existed. But because she lived in our midst, we always took her greatness for granted. A classic case of familiarity breeding contempt! Wasn’t she just like us? Dark, eating whatever we ate, schooling with us and speaking as we did?
However, with time, the realization that Prof Wangari was special has now sunk. The image of her distinctive smile returns to my mind. I feel good that I was lucky to have met her, albeit on only three occasions, and even though it was just on one of them, we conversed. That was in the period leading to the infamous elections of 2007 in a meeting called by Nyedda - Nyeri District Development Association.
They had organized the meeting in Nairobi for the descendants of Nyeri, the district of the mountains. “Charity begins at home.” Nyedda had rallied us. If you do nothing for your district, how then can you do anything for others? Many professionals answered Nyedda’s clarion call and assembled for the meeting. Prof Wangari, the then MP for Tetu, was there too, and I had time to connect with her as we all mingled exploring great ideas on how to fast track our district into the 22nd Century.
“My name is Mucemi and I am from Tetu” I introduced myself in a way to make her know I am her constituent. This naturally prompted the question of where in Tetu I came from. The moment I mentioned Kiawaithanji, her eyes lit up as she said, “I have been having great difficulties trying to build a secondary school there, but the locals appear not to want it!” I responded I would work with her to address the issue, we exchange numbers, then moved on to mix with the others.
The dark cloud of 2007 came and passed and we all wished it had never happened. The issues of the secondary school were resolved, and it has run successfully ever since. As I drive further through Thika road, I get fascinated by the new technological proposals dotting many parts of the highway. I utter a small prayer: may God grant that these resolve the traffic jams that today seem insurmountable?
But after a while, Prof Wangari’s feats return to occupy my mind. Triggered this time by pastime I am doing; a story that I’m writing of life in the 1970s. As soon as I embarked on the work, I found myself grappling with questions that all along thought I knew the answers to. The traditions we follow, the systems we ascribe to, and essentially what we are.
I have realized that we’ve been living by rote. We have just been following bits and pieces of information which we accept as explanations of the basis of our lives. But only if we could connect the dots would we gain the complete picture of our foundations. And what better way to do so than to go through what has been documented in the last 150 years? Unfortunately, with knowledge, when one question is answered, another hundred are generated! Therefore, I shudder to think of how many more questions I may end up seeking answers to.
I turn to read old publications starting with Routledges' 1910 book - With a Prehistoric People. I get to learn how we settled in our current region. Enterprising as always, the Kikuyus gained land from the indigenous people: firstly the Gumba, the fierce diminutive people also known as Maitho ma Ciana - the eyes of little children. But, it was mainly the Athi, the hunters, who sold them the land. That was because, with no herds of their own, they had a better appreciation of the animals - the currency upon which the sales were transacted.
Having purchased land, the man, ever the head of the family, cleared it to create a plot for farming and for erecting his homestead: his house, those for the wives and cattle shed. Also, erected was a hut for each unmarried son known as thingira, later Maskan, then Cube and in current times just Keja.
With no tools like saws and axes, he turned to the fire to bring down the gigantic trees. He would set alight a ring round the bottom of the trunk and sustain the fire to consume it. The diameter of that section would shrink to where the trunk could no longer support the entire tree, leaving it to fall to the ground.
With his plot gained, cleared and settled, the man then established sovereignty over it; what in Kikuyu we call Kūramata.
In the words of the Routledges: “Possession of that which he had thus won by hard work he maintained by the power of the sword, and he acknowledged the jurisdiction of no man.” This was as taught during initiation: “Ndaruire ndīyathage,” a common phrase heard as we grew up when men’s power was fairly unchallenged. Now the boy-child has been dehorned and such phrases are no more!
However, what captivated me most was the manner and speed the settling was done. I did not have to look far to appreciate how quickly people can occupy an area. For I had just passed Roysambu; to my left was Zimmerman and Clay city to the right, areas so densified that it felt the entire nation has been living there.
But why couldn't I remember seeing any structures around here in the 80s? Yet, I passed the place many times on the way to Nyeri. I always used the famous Travelers Choice bus and took the front seat facing the driver, where I had a full view of the countryside. Is it that my memory has become very poor? The answer - the area had nothing completely. Githurai was only a ranch!
The 80s was when one of the pioneer computer games, SimCity, was released. We played it and thought that the way it depicted a city grows was in the realm of science fiction. Looking at what has happened since then, I now appreciate fully what was shown in the SimCity game!
As I approach the Githurai overpass, I notice the vehicles are at a standstill. The ones in the rear are scrabbling to get into exit 9, to bypass the gridlock. This jam portends disaster, for I already expect to be late by 15 min and if this delays me further, I could be late for over 30 minutes – outside the accuracy limit of the "African Time". I decide to follow the others through the exit.
Even there, traffic moves at a snail’s pace. To make matters worse, everything comes to a complete halt just before I enter the roundabout. I wondered why no one could understand I was in a great hurry and give way. Ironically, it occurred to me that all could be yearning for the same. But just before giving in to desperation, voila! A Keja Mover truck gives way. I smile, then whisper to myself: “Leo, kuna mzee atahama Githurai!”
When I return to the main carriageway, I find the road fairly free, and so I push the car to 110kph, the legal speed limit. Even at that speed, where one would expect maximum concentration on the road, my mind remains alive with the thoughts of the rate at which indigenous forest in Central Kenya was disappearing at the turn of the 20th century. How the western boundary of the occupied land moved quickly so that in a few generations, only the slopes of the Aberdares remained untouched.
Those who remember the 80s will tell you that ridge after ridge the land had fallen bare. The results of decades of pilferage were clear: soils were now infertile, firewood was in big shortage and rains were threatening to fail. But all along, people knew it was the forests that bring rain as reported by the Routledges in their 1910 book. But with pilferage, it was a case of “Everyone for himself and God for us all.”
They cared little that God was only the grand total of their wishes. For having not had a compelling reason, their collective desire was yet to crystallize into a vision, then to a cause of action. But this happened when it started becoming clear that in the not so distant future, they would stare at famine. Everyone became saddened, but none could figure out what to do.
Then comes Prof Wangari and the Green Belt movement, telling everyone that each must plant a tree! Previously no one would have paid attention; men, the lords of the land would have just shrugged it off: what is this woman telling us? What can one tree do, anyway? We need a forest, not a single tree! As for the womenfolk, you know the old story - what does she have that we don’t? But they were now in desperation and were ready to take up any remedies.
Like a wonderful mother calming her children to sleep, Prof sat the people down and told them a story: once there was a forest fire; so big that all the animals in the forest thought they could do nothing to put it off. But a little hummingbird saw it differently. She decided she would do the best she could. And with her tiny beak scooped a drop of water from a nearby river and poured it on the fire, then repeated the action tirelessly.
Prof then told them that the enormous expanse of the bare earth threatening their lives is like a big fire, while a tree is only like a drop of water to put it off. Be the little hummingbird, she urged them! This time around, they listened. Man after man, woman after woman heeded the Green belt call and planted a tree. In a few years, greenery blanketed the whole countryside again; the rains returned and so did livelihoods. Prof had given the people back their most coveted possession - livable land!
This realisation came up recently when I was visiting my friend in Othaya, who has preserved a pre-colonial traditional granary constructed in 1943. The granary now declared a national heritage was the reason I paid the visit. While there, we marvelled at the beautiful greenery dotting the countryside. Suddenly my friend fell silent as if to reflect deeply on a grave situation he had witnessed before. After a moment, he opened up: “how amazing that it was only in the 80s that there was no vegetation cover anywhere and one could see very far across the ridge to Karundu.”
I responded by saying: “that was the same everywhere; it was Prof Wangari, who carried the vision that turned things around.” Then I concluded: “Prof might as well have been the best thing that happened to Kenya in the last 100 years!”
After driving for one hour and fifteen minutes, I reach the site of the meeting, only to find other attendees at the parking lot. A few more drove in as we walked towards the meeting room. It was as if everyone got there at the same time deliberately, perhaps because they understood twenty-five minutes late as being acceptable for it was within the allowed thirty minutes margin of error of the “African Time.”
© Mucemi Gakuru 2021