by Nducu wa Ngugi
The 3:00 p.m. Long Island Rail Road train from Ronkonkoma to Manhattan, New York, was on time. I was headed to the city to meet some old friends, some of whom I had not seen since we graduated from Oberlin College some twenty years ago. I smiled as I boarded the train and nestled against a corner seat. An elderly couple entered the same car, the man leaning onto the woman, and they took the seat adjacent to mine. I watched them out of bored curiosity. She opened a red handbag, pulled out a bottle of water, and handed it to the man.
“Here, drink this with your medicine,” she said. He reached for the bottle, thanked her and with some trouble he pulled out a black travel pill case from his weather-beaten leather jacket. “I don’t know what is going to happen if we lose our health insurance. Even my doctor said...” Her voice trailed off, drowned by the crackly voice on the intercom announcing the next stops along this route of the LIRR.
The man painstakingly arranged his cocktail of pills on a napkin he had spread out on the seat next to him. “I just don’t understand this new administration. They don’t seem to care...”
“I don’t know what to think or do anymore.” The woman cut him off and then watched him take the pills. “Drink some more water, dear.” She waited for him to take a sip. He snuggled back into his seat.
“I fear our grandkids might not even have a country,” she continued, with a pained look on her face, but the man had dozed off.
Her words took me back to a place.
Limuru, Kenya, late December 1977. The rumbling voices and the footsteps, unusual for this time of the night, woke me up. I sat up abruptly and listened, trying to discern the noise. There was a ray of light coming through the door jamb so I stealthily crawled out of bed, and tip-toed to the door. Placing my face on the crack, I peered through and saw the cause of all the fuss; men in suits holding flashlights that lit up the room.
They were about six or seven of them. Some were haphazardly rummaging through the books on the shelves and others through boxes of papers on the floor. I was twelve at the time and it did not make sense to me. What could they be looking for? And why didn’t they just ask my father, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, who stood by stoically. I had seen this look on his face before. He was either irritated or angry which meant all was not well. I thought about walking out to him but something held me back—it was late and the shadowy figures did not look like our usual visitors. Plus I was sleeping in my undies.
After what seemed like an eternity the men finally left and with them some materials tucked under their armpits. I found my way back to bed and for a while I could not sleep. I was scared and confused. I then heard a car drive off and then silence, except the wind whistling dissonantly outside my window. I wondered if my older brothers, sleeping in the adjacent room, had heard anything. I would find out tomorrow, I thought, as I finally drifted off to sleep.
The next morning, I was surprised to find my mother, Nyambura wa Ngugi, huddled with my aunt and other relatives in the living room, around an unlit fireplace. I thought it was a little early for them to have come for a casual visit, but when I looked at the clock it was almost midday! I had overslept. After greeting them I walked into the kitchen to catch a quick breakfast of toast, eggs, and some tea.
From the kitchen table I looked outside through the huge glass windows and noticed that the car my father drove, a Peugeot 404, was still outside. He must be in his office writing, I surmised, and so after my hurried meal I went in search of him. I wanted to know about the men from last night.
He was not in his office, and not in the bedroom. Well, I thought, he could not have gone far, perhaps he was chatting up a neighbor. Just then I saw my brothers and sisters out in the field and I ran out to join them.
I had always liked it here. Limuru was a beautiful place. Cascading hills greened by tea plantations, small-scale farms with rows of corn, cabbage, kale, pyrethrum, and an assortment of fruit trees. In the open fields, cows and goats grazed, moving together with their heads bowed to the ground. The cool morning air always greeted my nostrils with a therapeutic freshness. I had always been amazed at the vastness of the Manguo swamp below our house and, when I looked beyond the valley, the surrounding hills seemed to touch the skies.
The land was dotted with homesteads as far as the eye could see. These were our neighbors with whom we exchanged necessities; a cup of sugar, some tea leaves or salt. We also helped each other till the land and harvest crops.
This morning, however, everything seemed different. It was as if I were seeing this land for the first time. The valley below was now a cloud of fog, the hills in the distance seemed indistinguishable from the smoky mist rising across the landscape. The wind seemed to be howling louder than usual and the cold air cut through my skin with a malicious bitterness. Something about last night was bothering me.
I tried to join in the games with my siblings but my heart was not in it. I noticed too that my older brothers were a little distracted (or was I imagining it?). I asked them if they had heard anything last night but they were also in the dark. Yes, but no one knew any more than I did and they were just as confused. All we could do now was wait.
A few years back our home had been our bastion. I felt safe. No worries. All I had to do was attend school, get good grades and be a kid. Many parents encouraged us to explore the world through reading, music and through curiosity about and beyond our immediate environment. Our house too was a hive of activity. Farm workers and neighbors would drop in to say hello. Some came for advice on familial matters or just to chit-chat and catch up. Our many cousins would come stay with us over the weekends or during school holidays. There were also the aspiring writers who came by carrying huge manuscripts for my father to look at.
A few years after moving here my father started working with the workers and peasants of Kamirithu to produce Ngahika Ndenda (I will marry when I want), a play he had co-written with the late Ngugi wa Mirii. Many of the villagers had never experienced theatre as a reflection of their own lives, consumed it as entertainment or participated in its production let alone appearing on stage, except perhaps those church parodies meant to correct the foibles of an otherwise good Christian. Plays and musicals produced at the Kenya National Theatre, for example, were often times a preserve of the highbrow of Kenyan society and almost never reflective of the lives of ordinary Kenyans.
One day, driving to rehearsal with my father and Ngugi wa Mirii, I listened to them discuss how important it was that the young and old of Kamirithu had found a voice and a place to talk about their situation. They said something about a village, which had once been a concentration camp during colonial times, and was now finding hope and a new determination. Young men and women discovered they had talents for acting, singing, and dance and village elders rekindled a love for learning how to read and write in Gikuyu. It was a community reinventing, re-engaging and re-imagining itself. The two men discussed how ideas, stories and life mixed in a more purposeful way. These words would stick with me through the years.
As a pre-teen I was excited to see the actors and actresses go through their lines, and a newly formed band, Mwiku-Mwiku, practicing at the open air theatre right in the middle of the village. At times my older brothers, Tee and Kim, would play guitar, my sister Ngina and I tried our vocals, while the youngest, Mukoma and Wanjiku played spoons and tin cans as percussion. For me it also meant escape from doing my homework.
Now, with the ominous visitation from last night casting a shadow on the games with my siblings, those years at the theatre seemed a world away.
With not much happening with outside play, much as we tried, I wandered back to the house and after some of the guests had left, I asked my mother where my father was. She was quiet for a little while and then she told me that security forces had taken him for questioning but he would be back sometime today. Why did they have to take him? I had asked. She was not sure, she replied, but not to worry, all would be well. But the day went by and still no word on my father. And then another.
My mother had called and even gone to the police station but no one could tell her where he was. There was a secrecy surrounding his whereabouts. “I will find out soon, don’t you worry. I will get him home,” she assured us. And so we waited.
As the days passed by the air around the house became heavy with uncertainty. No one knew what to think. Then a cruel thought sneaked into my mind. Maybe I might never see him again. Just like JM Kariuki who was found dead in a thicket in the Ngong Hills near Nairobi, with his teeth and eyes missing. JM was a politician who stood up against Kenyatta’s corrupt government, the widening gap between the rich and the poor and the unfair distribution of land after independence. I now remembered the images of his mutilated body in the papers. I shuddered.
In the evenings by the fireplace, my brothers Tee and Kim tried to bring cheer by telling us stories. Tee regaled us with the adventures of Mwangi Cowboy. In one adventure, Mwangi Cowboy has heard of a bully named Chokoloko Banguchi who had been harassing children trying to make it to school. So one day Mwangi Cowboy tracked him down and confronted him. A bemused Chokoloko Banguchi looked at the Cowboy and immediately raised his fists in the air and a fight ensued.
Halfway through the fight the bully, a giant of a man, seemed to be getting the better of Mwangi, pummeling the bewildered cowboy with lefts and rights. The school children were now in tears, grimacing with each blow on Cowboy’s head. Mwangi, on realizing he was outmatched, suggested to the giant that they fight their own shadows. Chokoloko accepted the challenge and vowed to beat his own shadow to a pulp. He immediately went after it, muttering angrily at his shadow because it would not stay still. He clobbered and stomped the dirt beneath him to the great amusement of the school children. After a while he realized that he had been tricked and he ran off in humiliation, never to be seen again.
Kim liked to narrate a story about a hyena that had a most curious habit. He loved nothing more than dining on planks of wood, the outcome of which was to poop huge piles of sawdust, a feat that the other animals found entertaining.
Storytelling was what we had done before my father’s detention and continued to do after (even today whenever we meet or talk on the phone). It was our temporary escape from the present to another world of possibility and wonder.
One day word came that Vice President Daniel Moi had signed the order to detain my father. He was now a political prisoner at Kamiti, a maximum security prison. But what did all that mean for a twelve-year-old?
My mother started making calls and demanding that he be released to no avail. But she was relentless and eventually she and my older siblings were allowed to go visit him at Kamiti. In order to humiliate my father and other detainees, they put a condition that in order to see one’s family he would have to be shackled in chains. My father refused to wear the chains and they did not allow him to see his family. (See Detained: A Writers Prison Diary.)
“Only thieves go to jail,” a classmate had teased me one cold morning at school.
“My father is not a criminal!” I protested. “He is a political detainee.” I had read that in the papers.
“Then why is he in jail?” the boy asked.
I did not have an answer for him and so I walked away. I had now just turned thirteen.
Despite the uncertainty surrounding his detention without trial and what would come of it, I held onto a hope that he would return soon. I read in the papers about local and international organizations fighting for his release. Visitors and people of good-will from far and wide stopped by, bringing words of encouragement. Members of the Kamirithu community came by to while the nights away. It sustained us. Even later when I saw the front pages of major newspapers with photographs of government-inspired mobs burning effigies of my father and other dissidents, I was still optimistic that he would be home soon.
But hope is a fragile thing I realized a few months in, as my expectations began to thaw at the edges. Even with a mother who kept fighting and demanding answers from the authorities, it was becoming harder by the day to believe that it would all end well. Then the government turned to more hostile tactics. First were the break-ins into our home, then threatening phone calls at night and during the day—muffled voices at the end of the line threatening to kill us all. Once I picked up the phone. “Hello,” I said. But there was silence followed by heavy breathing and then ominous laughter. “Hello, who is this?” I asked, my voice crackling with fear. “We are coming!” Click. Gradually, despite my best efforts, fear found a home in my heart where hope and happiness had once resided.
I was scared of and angry at the world but my mother asked me to focus on my upcoming national exams. “Show them,” she said, “that we do not fold in the face of adversity. Your father will return. Kihooto kiunaga uta mugete! (The truth breaks a taut bow and arrow.) And truth will always be on the right side of history, no matter how they bend it.”
I tried. But how could I ignore these feelings of hurt and injustice? How could I pretend that all was well when I was reminded every day that there was danger lurking, waiting to pounce on me and my family? Even my dreams began to haunt me. The worst were the ones where the secret police were after me. In one such dream they were chasing me, their long machetes and guns glistening in the darkness. I ran as fast as I could but they were gaining on me. I finally managed to hide under a canopy of trees and just when I thought I was safe, a cold hand grabbed me by the neck. I turned trying to fight back but I could not move my limbs so I stared at him while the others circled around us, licking their lips. His eyes morphed into orbits and they began to leak blood. I screamed and woke up, trembling.
And as if we had not gone through enough as a family something else happened that we were not prepared for—silence. Our home was no longer the beehive it once was. No one came to visit or seek counsel any more. The relatives stayed away. People we knew would now turn and walk the other way to avoid making contact with us. Once again my mother urged us to not to allow anyone to cow us into a corner. We had to stay strong and proud. She asked that we sing louder, work and play harder. We were not alone as long as we had each other. And slowly we turned our isolation into comfort, our fears into actions that gave us a united front and solace.
In one moment of levity, my mother reminded us that the government had already banned a gathering of more than three people without a license, and so, according to her, we were already outlaws! And a baby girl, Njoki, born six months after my father’s detention, added to the group of rebels against the Kenyatta-Moi regime.
My father and his fellow detainees nicknamed Njoki, Kana ka Bothiita (post office baby) because that was how my father first met his daughter, through photographs mailed to him. But to Kamirithu, she was known as Wamuingi (belonging to the people).
President Kenyatta died in August of 1978 and Daniel Moi took over the reins of power despite a “change the constitution movement” that sought to bar the vice president from automatically ascending to power. He assured Kenyans that his was going to be a different government. In December 1978 he released all twenty-six political prisoners. I remember the excitement and the tears as we jumped from bed and rushed out to meet my father and some of the other detainees by the gate. We had cause to celebrate.
A few months after my father’s release they denied him his position at the University of Nairobi where he had previously taught before his detention without trial. The authorities continued with the harassment and death threats and he was finally forced into exile in 1982 for speaking truth to power, for daring to dream of an equitable Kenya and a progressive Africa, buoyed by the spirit of the majority and not the small ruling political elite. We were once again isolated but this time we were older and wiser and we knew what to do: keep our heads up and continue our life’s journey.
By now Moi was becoming unpopular, especially after adopting his Fuata Nyayo, “follow in the footsteps,” philosophy just as he had followed Kenyatta’s since 1967 when he was appointed to be vice president. In a word he was demanding quiet loyalty and that he was not going to tolerate dissent. To further consolidate power Moi began appointing “yes” men and women and demoting those he perceived as a menace to his growing authoritarianism. He threatened his enemies and his friends alike, many of whom were disappeared but he, Bible in hand, attended church every Sunday to atone for his sins. He used fear—us against them—to divide the electorate and position himself as the only one that could solve the country’s problems. He alone had the answers. He developed a personality cult and surrounded himself with sycophants.
They glorified his name. One politician even asked that God take his life now, and add whatever years he would have had on earth, to Moi’s life so he could rule forever. They showered him with gifts and praises even as he looted public coffers to enrich himself, his family and those who sung his tune the loudest. Even members of his cabinet, whom he would receive in the state house, declared their undying loyalty and praised his leadership as the best Kenya would ever have. After they left, they would hear on the radio or see on TV that they had been fired!
The elite made fun of Moi, called him a bubbling fool who had no idea what he was doing, but the newspapers of the day covered Moi, splashing his face in the front pages of every newspaper, and TV news coverage. He was everywhere. Public figures, teachers, lecturers, university students and ordinary citizens who dared speak up against him began to disappear. The more people resisted and questioned him the more vicious his dictatorship became. He was cruel and capricious. Even his cronies lived in fear. No one was safe it seemed. In February 1990 Moi’s foreign minister, Robert Ouko, went missing. His charred remains were found in a bush, six kilometers from his house, reminiscent of JM’s murder.
I did not quite grasp the magnitude of the damage Moi’s autocratic rule was wreaking on the psyche of the Kenyan people. People walked on tenterhooks, scared even of the walls of their bedrooms, scared that they might be next, scared to dream of a brighter day. That trepidation began to normalize. It was as if there would be no Kenya without Moi. After all it was against the law to imagine his death!
Moi too now joined in the chorus, believing indeed that he was the savior. He called himself the professor of politics, named universities and buildings after him. He appropriated land and built a real estate empire, and controversially acquitted a tea plantation. He groomed his children to run the family businesses that had ties all over the world and anyone who dared question his authority was an enemy of the people. He lashed out and blamed the news media for giving voice to dissent and even started his own propaganda print that painted him in his own image. Political repression, including the use of the infamous Nyayo House torture chambers, fraud, and human rights abuse were the hallmark of his twenty-four year rule.
Moi was implicated in a myriad of corrupt practices during his dictatorship. The biggest of which was the Goldenberg scandal in which the Kenyan government illegally subsidized exports of gold in excess of the foreign currency earnings of exporters. The scam cost Kenya close to 10% of GDP.
What I understood then was that it was okay to be afraid but not to live in fear because I did not stand alone. I understood that there were hundreds and hundreds of people who stood in solidarity with us during those dark days. I understood it then, and even more so now, that good people everywhere will always have to stand firm and fight the good fight.
I know now that institutions of checks and balances, which Kenya did not have, are only as good as the people who work there, and that there is more power in the collective will of the people than in the loud chants or harangues of a few. The voice of the majority will always prevail over the nefarious acts of sycophants. But that voice has to be cultivated, it must be relentless, it has to be loud and unyielding. It was that undying spirit of resistance by the Kenyan people that led to Moi’s downfall.
I, no, we survived 24 years of Moi—an egomaniac, a dictator, a sociopath and a media personality whose face had to appear daily in the print media, on the TV screens and his daily itinerary announced on the radio. His off-the-cuff and undisciplined roadside proclamations served as his official state house positions which laid out his vision of Kenya, bleak as it was. It was also the platform he used to hire or fire political appointees or annunciate foreign policy. That was before Twitter.We had now made it to Penn Station. I waited for the elderly couple to alight. I followed. I should have told them my story, I thought to myself. If Kenya had endured the error that was Moi, America too can survive. Trust the people.