Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Peoples of Kenya - I


When we heard of Harrison’s death we knew the penny had dropped. Our Kenyan odyssey had come a full circle and it was, just perhaps, time for us to leave and go back. Harrison was a swarthy Kenyan, a proud Kamba and a God-fearing Christian, the first of the local peoples of Kenya we had  privilege connecting with. When we touched Kenya soil it was his hearty jambo and karibuni that ushered us and eased us into an alien country. If Prado were a fighter aircraft then the Mission’s driver supremo Harrison would be Top Gun.

Wearing a clean brown safari suit everyday, lumbering with a limp, a smile on his lips and a twinkle in his eyes, he performed his duty as a driver almost karmically. His rustic wisdom articulated colloquially enlightened us about the city and its people more than any nuggets from “Lonely Planet” or counsel from local Indians. “All this talk of city being unsafe... don’t listen to people; if you do you’ll not even be able to eat or breathe… this is bad, this not good… I live here all my life of 65 years, I drive at night, nothing happens to me,” he would say in his robust Kenyan drawl. It was reassuring to have him drive us around; he seemed no less than a bodyguard in a city that was notorious for its crime and carjacking. Moreover, he would beat the notorious Nairobi traffic by navigating in and out of obscure lanes and bylanes as though he had a GPS in his head.

Having sired eleven children (all grown up now), he was the quintessential father figure who said it like it is, mincing no words, particularly when it came to punctuality! And yet, he was there for us always, assuredly, with his ever ready: “Hakuna Matata” meaning, “No problem”. He had a way with words and could hold his own in front of anyone. Once when he was dropping us at the American ambassador’s residence for an official function, the security at the gate, in typical American condescension ordered Harrison, scurvily, to go and park far away from the gate. The proud Kenyan let loose a politically-loaded repartee: “Who wants to be close to the Americans anyway!” Harrison had the chutzpah to speak his mind without fear. What struck me most about this person was his dignity and self-pride. Harrison owned a small “kioski” (he pronounced kiosk thus, in his inimitable way) round the corner from where we stayed. One night, the civic authorities demolished it without any notice or warning. We heard about it from the nonchalant owner himself who held no grouse against anyone despite the calamity.

Being driven by him, even as we got acquainted with the city of Nairobi we got insights into the man himself. When I raved about the beauty of green Nairobi, he urged me to go to the countryside to see how beautiful Kenya really was. One day revealed that he was a Marathon runner when on one of his runs he injured his foot such that he had to give up running altogether. His day began with a concoction of some medicinal leaves followed by a healthy porridge; he confided about his secret recipe for good health, on another drive.  He would never eat out no matter how late he had to stay on duty. A modest meal cooked by him, of ugali (maize flour porridge) and sukuma wiki (kale), the staple of most Kenyans, would see him through the day. He eschewed vices, stayed away from alcohol and smoking, but supported several wives back in his village!

Kilonzo Harrison was a farmer at heart who talked fondly of fields of Irish potato and corn back home in Machakos. He looked forward to going there to be with his folks during Christmas where he would play the guitar to while away evenings.  Accustomed to his business-like presence, it was difficult to imagine him with a floral shirt, strumming a guitar, and riding a motorbike, carefree, on country roads. Or perhaps not, but that was the real Harrison we never really got to see.

His death was sudden and though he did not die in a motorbike accident, in an indirect way, it was to be his nemesis. Down with common cold already, he contracted pneumonia when he indulged his motorbike in the wintry countryside air.  But something tells me that there was more to it. That though he may not have died a bitter man, he must have died a pained man with a lament in his heart. His sons did not share his old-world and Christian values and rebelled against him for the firm hand he wielded on them. In an unfair and uncaring world, his upright ways did not always get recognized or respected and he had to swallow hurt and humiliation on many occasions . It was unfortunate that after his retirement we did not get to see him or bid farewell to him as the curtain drew over our la affair Kenya.

(NOTE: The title, Peoples of Kenya, has been borrowed from Joy Adamson’s book of the same name which documents (with illustrations by the author, herself) the 52 various tribes of Kenya. While, my blog is not a study of any tribes, I present this series as portraits of ordinary Kenyans that I felt inspired to write about. The first one is on a proud Akamba, Kilonzo Harrison.)  

1 comment:

  1. The American government has been donating more than 700 million dollars every year to Kenya for the past decade. Thousands of Kenyans including Maathai have been scholarships by the American government over the past few decades.

    But ofcourse the driver knew all this.