I Left Ofafa Jericho Primary School 44 Years Ago

I left Ofafa Jericho Primary School, Nairobi, in November 1972. That was 44 years ago. I was a high-spirited youth in Class Seven Tiger. School was fun. Learning was great and it blended well with foolish childish mischief.

I recall receiving six strokes of the best from my class teacher, Samuel Ng’ang’a Mwaura, for posting on the class bulletin board a cutting from a daily newspaper, titled “Save the tiger.” Mwaura’s angst with the poster was lost on me. I understood that naming classrooms after the wildlife was our modest contribution to the conservation effort. Each classroom in the school took its name after one beast or the other. And I was a tiger always ready to pounce. There were many adolescent goings on, however, and they possibly explain Mwaura’s misallocated anger against an innocent newspaper cutting.

A recent visit to the school upon the invite of the PTA reunited me with my classroom, with a blending of nostalgia and sorrow. The plaque outside the door remains, four and a half decades later. But many other things remain, too. The coat of paint on the walls is the same that we left in 1972. The school has not enjoyed a single stroke of the brush ever since this block was constructed in 1970, some 46 years ago. The offending bulletin board has worn out with time. It makes nonsense of the original reason for being there. The blackboard has lost its black. It has picked up potholes allover.

Individual lockable desks with detached chairs have replaced the long desks that we shared between two kids. These, however, are in a sorry state in every classroom. All are at one stage of collapse or the other. Some have no backrest. Others miss a leg or two. These kids do miracles. There is a girl following the lesson while delicately balanced on a two-legged ramshackle of a chair. Elsewhere, a boy is balancing on what is now a three-legged chair. In front of him is a desk without a worktop. Somehow, he manages to listen to the teacher, balance on the three-legged contraption and scribble in his tattered book in the hollow of the desk. Would be that this were an isolated story. Unfortunately, the whole classroom is like this. And it is the same story everywhere in the school. This is a modern school in East Africa’s seat of economic power – Kenya’s capital city that houses State House, City Hall and all that.

A visit to the washrooms is depressing. There is leakage everywhere, I am not sure of what. The place is odoriferous. This applies both to the pupils’ and staff washrooms. Our once immaculate ‘Ofafa Jericho Gorofa Primary School,’ as we loved calling it, is in a truly sorry state. Yet as you walk out, you come across young men from the neighboring boys’ secondary school. Apparently, suffering inadequate space in their own school, it was decided that they should “borrow some space” in the primary school in return for water from their borehole. There have been tales of gross indiscipline involving these high school gents and our prepubescent primary school girls. Where this will end, I don’t know!

Something is grotesquely wrong. But the bad news does not end here. The story of dilapidation is the same in all public primary schools in Eastlands. It is the same narrative at Martin Luther Primary School, Rabai Road School, Dr. Livingstone, Dr. Krapf, St. Patrick, Kimathi, Cannon Apollo, St. Michael’s Jogoo Road, Heshima Road  . . . God, we are in trouble! Decades ago, these were immaculate structures.

We had modern class libraries, equipped with memorable story books. From them, I gathered fledgling language skills. I even began dreaming of the art of writing. I was introduced to the Bronte sisters.  It was here that I met R. L. Stephenson, Jules Verne, R.M. Ballantyne, Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, Richard Blackmore, Jonathan Swift, Herman Melville, Miguel Cervantes and Alexandre Dumas, among other canonical writers. This was how I met my favourite Lorna Doone and Jane Eyre. I found Pip, Estella, Joe Gargery and Miss Havisham in Great Expectations. I discovered Achebe’s Things Fall Apart in Class Six. I devoured it. Ngugi ravished me in Seven Tiger as did Ferdinand Oyono, Mongo Betti and Camara Laye. Many were the hours passed discussing Jane Eyre, Lorna Doone, Don Quixote and Oliver Twist.

Today these children have no idea what this stuff is all about. How can they? Their circumstances cannot afford them that kind of luxury. Six years ago I visited to make a book donation. Nobody seems to know what happened to the books. But that is not even the issue. The issue is that I had thought that Devolution would make a difference. It has not. In my time, we were served hot lunch from the City Council kitchens in Eastleigh. We called the food “supro” or “burgar.” It kept our intestines calm so that our heads could remain open to study. I had thought Devolution would return some of this. It has not.

I see that Nairobi’s Governor Kidero is asking city residents to vote for him again. I don’t know what he has to show for his four years. I would have thought that our children and their schools would be quick wins for the governor. He has done absolutely nothing for them. Why should a child who has a governor balance delicately on a two-legged chair? Why should she not have a proper toilet to go to when pressed by a call of nature?

The city county leadership has failed our children just as has the National Government. Where is our collective conscience as adults when we subject our children to such adversity? In 1729, Jonathan Swift advised the British that if the children of the poor were a burden to them, they should just sell them as food for rich gentlemen and ladies. Nairobi’s poor children waddle through fresh sewage everyday, even in school. They suffer regular water shortages and walk through dark alleys. Privileged citizens drive on potholed roads and live in stinking garbage. Poor voters go to county dispensaries without services. I sincerely don’t know how Nairobi’s County Government justifies itself. And I see a lot of rich characters out there noisily scrambling for Nairobi 2017. I don’t know what difference they propose to make.

Two things remain. First, for the sake of honour, Governor Kidero should not seek reelection. He has failed us. Second, the rest of the pretenders should demonstrate what they have done for Nairobi – and especially for the poor. If they cannot, they should hold their horses. Meanwhile the National Government should step in to save our children, or show us how to eat them.

RE-MEMBER-RING Maasai Leaders & Elders

I was a young man growing up in a newly independent Kenya. Our Kenyan nation was not yet ten years. We learnt early to follow social and political debates in the country. Stanley Shapashina Oloitiptip of Kajiado South and John Keen of Kajiado North were the foremost Maasai leaders. They could never agree on anything.

Keen was the more progressive and public spirited of the two leaders. He was a populist within the prism of J. M. Kariuki of Nyandarua North. Others in this club were Jean Marie Seroney of Tinderet and Martin Shikuku of Butere. There were indeed a dozen or so other leaders cut from the same cloth. They fought and spoke out for citizens’ rights. This was regardless of tribe, race or any other group identity. Their sole concern was the Kenyan nation.

Keen crusaded for inclusion of the Maasai in a modern political economy, while preserving the essence of being Maasai. Oloitiptip resisted modernity for the Maasai, but not for himself. He came through as a gifted calculating individual. He saw the Maasai as horse. He was the horse owner and rider.  He appeared always concerned about himself and what he could get from the system and the horse.

Keen wanted the Maasai to get out of the Manyatta. He desired them to take their children to school and claim their place in an emerging Kenya. Oloitiptip said no to all this. And so the two often threw heavy brickbats at each other, in the public space. Essentially a systems man, Oloitiptip got to the apogee of his good fortunes in the early years of the Nyayo Government. As Minister for Local Government, he would publicly praise the government and independence with words to the effect, “Independence is sweet. This Nyayo Government is particularly good. Because of independence and Nyayo, I now live in a twelve-bedroomed house in Lavington.” It would later emerge in public that this was a stolen city council house.

That was in 1980. Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, who had been barred from running in the 1979 Presidential and General Elections, dismissed Oloitiptip as “an avaricious individual” who was “mesmerized with his ill-gotten wealth at the expense of his people.” As Oloitiptip’s fortunes peaked, other Maasai leaders were eclipsed. John Keen, who had featured prominently in the parliamentary probe into J.M. Kariuki’s assassination, was getting steadily marginalized, because of his outspokenness. Justus Ole Tipis, all this time an assistant minister now in this ministry then the other, was a self-effacing phlegmatic individual. He was unflappable to a fault. And that perhaps represented the perception of where those who owned Kenya thought the Maasai should be. They were to be seen and not to be heard; to remain horses that boisterous tribal nouvelle riches like Stanley Oloitiptip could ride to whichever destination they chose.

While Oloitiptip was at the pinnacle of his fortunes, however, you occasionally heard of the Chairman of the Narok County Council. He was a charismatic individual called William Rongorua Ole Ntimamah, a fiery daredevil whom the establishment was keen to tame. He often spoke about Maasai land rights and protection of water towers in the Maasai countryside. He spoke out against charcoal burning in the Mau and of the need to protect the forest. Like John Keen, he wanted the Maasai to take up modernity, while not losing their soul as the Maasai nation. Because of this, the Kanu Government twice barred him from contesting for the Narok Parliamentary seat. The dull natured Ole Tipis was the State’s candidate.

In the fullness of time, Oloitiptip and Ole Tipis separately fell out with the Nyayo Government. They each demonstrated that they could not live without power and went to be with God. Ntimamah rapidly rose to be the new Maasai supremo. Keen had learnt to keep his thoughts to himself. Although he would find his voice again as the Secretary General of Mwai Kibaki’s Democratic Party, the old fire never quite returned. He has since retired from politics and is ageing gracefully, away from the limelight. Like Joseph Murumbi, another prominent Maasai leader before him, Keen observes civic goings on quietly – certainly disappointed with the turn the country has taken, given his previous public stand on issues.

For his part, Ntimamah will go down in history as an enigmatic figure. He could unite and divide with equal zeal and ease. Much has been said about his “lie low like an envelope – or antelope – ” edict. He will certainly feature prominently when the story of the heady social and political turbulence of 1992, 1997 and 2007/8 is properly compiled and written. At this time of mourning him, it is useful to remember Mark Antony’s famous words in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, “I have here come to bury Caesar, not to praise him. The evil that men do lives after them; the good oft interred with their bones. So let it be with Caesar.”

Mercifully, both President Uhuru Kenyatta and former Prime Minister Raila Odinga want to claim Ole Ntimamah in his death. It must be for the good that he did in his life. Or it might just be because they are salivating for the Maasai vote – or both. Both leaders, however, threw up unnecessary tantrums at Ntimamah’s burial service. They forgot that this was a sacred church event – a sacrosanct funeral service.

President Kenyatta went on to call a bishop appalling names. He forgot that the bishop was at his altar. Whatever the misgivings, you don’t throw invectives at a bishop in his own space. In such contexts, the men of God must enjoy the benefit of doubt. When we tell them in this forum that they are “stupid,” the gods could take offence. Likewise, we say in Emanyulia that we should not go to funerals to gloat about the meat in our mouth. The gods could just remove it. President Kenyatta’s advisers and ODM’s Raila Odinga’s people of wisdom might want to remind them about sense of occasion – if they can pluck the courage. Meanwhile let’s bury Ole Ntimamah’s bones and keep his words for some other day.

It Is Not Clear Who Jaramogi Could Have Had In Mind When He Moved A Motion In The First Parliament

Today the Jubilee Party will be born. What happens after this birth is anybody’s guess. But one thing is clear. History is about to repeat itself. Georg Friedrich Hegel famously remarked that all great things and personalities appear twice in history. Karl Marx modified Hegel’s aphorism. Writing about the quasi-revolutionary misadventures of Napoleon Bonaparte and his nephew Louis Napoleon over the period 1792 – 1851, Marx remarked, “History repeats itself, first as a farce and second as a tragedy.”

Kenya’s farcical and tragic history is forever repeating itself. The farce of national unity began after independence. It is with us again. Writing in the volume Decolonization and Independence in Kenya 1940 – 93, William. R. Ochieng recalls that opposition MPs from the Kenya African Democratic Union (KADU) and the African People’s Party (APP) “were lured to join KANU in the government. They immediately strengthened the conservative wing of KANU.” The objective was to muzzle opposition. National unity was the excuse rather than the reason a one party State was imposed.

Migration of the opposition into KANU in 1966 began an odyssey whose impact remains today. It placed KANU’s bigwigs on a political roller coaster. It concentrated power in the hands of the Executive, leading to actualization of Lord Acton’s maxim that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Political detention without trial became normal. Ethnic and religious marginalization and political assassinations came home to stay. The assassinations remain unsolved, decades later. Will the birth of the Jubilee Party make Kenya a better country, or will it open a new phase to a fifty-year-old odyssey?

We have heard the same sound bytes as we did in 1966. In the interest of forging unity among Kenyans, it was important to have one strong political party that included all tribes. Against the grain of history, we can see today that this did not happen. Mzee Kenyatta’s government entrenched negative ethnicity while dishonestly preaching national unity. Subsequent governments have walked in the same footsteps. The country remains as divided as ever.

The big lesson in Kenya’s tribal history is that negative ethnic energy is not a factor of people not belonging to one political party. It is a product of ethnic exclusion and discrimination by those in power. You cannot, therefore, railroad a country into one political party and imagine that you now have a united nation. Kenyans have been brought up in a culturally divisive and ethnically arrogant environment. They need more than party tokenism and political mumbo-jumbo to build trust across ethnic lines.

Let me repeat. Ethnic animosity is almost always a factor of perceptions of ethnic exclusion and injustice. Even where everybody belongs to one party, as Kenyans did in the period 1966 – 1991, hostile ethnic relations will be there, if populations feel left out of social, political and economic opportunities. This, more than anything else, is what President Kenyatta needs to address. Is his government inclusive?

Even as he fuses thirteen parties into one, there remains a preponderant feeling that Kenyatta presides over an ethnic duopoly. For as long as this perception remains, herding people into single parties is a futile exercise as far as nation building goes. We are already hearing people talk of the different ethnic factions in the party to be born today. The factions will be watching the opportunities in the party from ethnic vantage points.

Apart from 1966 and today, political parties fused again in March 2002. This time round Raila Odinga’s National Development Party (NDP) folded to join KANU. If the 1966 merger of parties was a farce, the 2002 union was a tragedy – for KANU. The unfulfilled expectations of the NDP brigade lifted the lid to the activities that led to the defeat of President Moi’s Uhuru Project. They served KANU a blow that has left her staggering, fourteen years on. What are the expectations of those now dissolving their parties to merge into Jubilee? Where will they leave the new party? Time will tell. Meanwhile the Jubilee ownership will do well to remain conscious of the damage that unmet ambitions can do. It should not surprise them to witness discontent and infighting as politicians compete for the same goals and opportunities, under one roof.

President Kenyatta and DP William Ruto will also be focused on taming defections. To address this, they have worked with CORD leaders to pass what they call the “anti-party hopping law.” Here, again, history has repeated itself. Legislators have enacted a law against themselves, just as they did after the formation of KPU in 1966. The new law will return to haunt the lawmakers a few months from now. Just like the 1966 law haunted those who made it, some in the present crop of MPs will fry in their own political fat after Jubilee and CORD sideline them next year. Conversely, defections might begin a short time to come, from both CORD and Jubilee.

As Jubilee juggles the marbles of trying to lock up Kenyans in one political corner, CORD haplessly stares into a major political abyss. Kenyatta and Ruto are busy registering voters in their strongholds through the continuous voter registration process. They have a very clear picture of how many new voters they lap on each month – and where. When they raid CORD strongholds, they know that they will not turn the tables against CORD. But they know that they can grasp a few votes from them. And that is all they want, because it will make a difference. The Jubilee strategy is scientific and foolproof.

Raila Odinga and his brigade may want to change tack. They ought to know, by now, that the crowds that turn up to look at them in their flight visits to Emanyulia and sundry places will not necessarily vote for them.  Are they registered voters? Do they even have national identity cards? Who is managing their registration and sustaining their loyalty? CORD is caught up in panicky knee jerk reactions to Jubilee strategies. When they are not putting up rushed rallies and roadshows in reaction to Jubilee, they are busy fighting in house. They are hapless. They have no strategy, no plan on how to win the coming election. I can tell Raila Odinga for free. Running around the countryside without a strategy and a clear message, except crying wolf and calling people names, does not bring in votes. Wake up and style up now, or you will tell the world the same old post election story next year. Good luck.