The odiero (white) lady immediately notices the sudden shift in the milieu as the driver manages the corner off Mombasa Road. All of us do. But it’s only her with hurt in her eyes. She is the only one among us who is moved almost to tears- appalled by the sight of bunch of pot bellied kids scampering around bare feet, playing house next to the flowing blue-black cesspool grime. While their mothers sit behind a makeshift stand for selling her merchandise (mostly foodstuff) with a simulation of what is supposed to be a leso barely covering their essentials. But from the look on her face, it is evident that what staggers her conscience more is the thought that someone is actually going to buy and eat that food.
The six lane highway that she had exclaimed at not more than a breath ago, is readily replaced by a smudged and rugged three meters wide passageway that copes as a lane for two. It is a slight mock-up of a Nairobi Stock Exchange price chart, and driving in a Toyota Premio proves to be as difficult as the thought of a human being dwelling in that cardboard erection on the banks of the sewage rivulet.
Throngs of idle youth engaged in a gaming pastime of kamare on one side, and others pre-occupied in some banter typically escorted by a derisive laughter of hanging hyenas; become more and more pronounced. A stink rushes in to shift our attention to the dump site that dutifully adorns the neighborhood; accompanied by the stench from the open air sewerage system and flying toilet dump disposal mechanism that has been adopted by the borough council of the day. There are no more glassy shopping malls graced with opulent X6s and sleek Range Rovers at the parking lot. Rather, fragmentary storey buildings that double up as a bar-cum-shop-cum-salon at the ground floor and residentials on the subsequent floors take over.
A ragamuffin dressed in an imitation of threadbare clothing approaches the car and the odiero rolls up her side of the window, placating snicker from me. She is taken aback by how unsentimental we are at the plight of the residents of this place, oblivious to the fact that two decades of residence in Kenya has case hardened our hearts and minds to struggle. Here, poverty is an everyday thing. A way of life…it has always been ever since God overlooked us when he handed down his graces. Ever since the government passed us over like a Jewish holiday, and expanded their pay instead of our opportunities.
We are at the gully side. En route to Bahati Secondary School in the depths of Mukuru kwa Njenga slum- courtesy of Amnesty International, to educate the students on Human Rights. As I step out from the car, I feel a sense of déjà vu. Like I am home. My mind races back to my dad’s apartment in Huruma (or Mobimba as he would often like to call it) where life is a tad better than this. Better in the sense that at least in Huruma, the road there is leveled, and houses are painted at the front and more mothers can afford to send their kids to school with a kangumu stashed inside their pockets.
Otherwise, the difference is the same.
That is why I find no trouble maneuvering in between the ramshackle of abodes, and the flowing sewage as we find our way to the school. And surprisingly enough, madam odiero is coping up quite fine. For some moment there, I was expectant worried that she was going to do her good deed of the day and give me something funnier to write about when she misses a bridge stone and respond obediently to the call of gravity nose first into the raging flow of piss and shit. And woe unto my lady friend from school (NAME REDACTED) who decided to put on high heels to a place like this. Good thing she, just like most Nairobi ladies today, had brought along her portable wardrobe handbag…and change of footwear.
Minus all the drama of calculating how far one is supposed to jump in order to get to the other side of the ‘river bank’ and having to decide whether that thingamabob at the centre of the stream is a stone or a soaked mattress, the walk is to the school should take barely five minutes. But then, in the spirit of being a gentleman to my classmate, and a tour guide explaining the difference between a baby and a monkey to madam odiero, we took a little longer.
Bahati School is by far, the only thing that has managed to pacify the pride I take in having been born in a ‘better off’ family. If my father had been a manual laborer at Industrial Area, and my mum a waitress in the nearby bar; dealing with drunken men with a brown bottle on one hand and twilight lady with too much make up and not too much clothing on the other, then I would most likely attended a school like this.
A school that is less than the stretch of our halls of residence’s hallway in length. Built with nothing more than cheap iron sheets and wood, and then roughly brushed through in black and blue painting. An institution with a total capacity of 120 students- and the population is reducing because of rampant drop outs whose parents pay cannot sustain a lifestyle that incorporates a school fees of Ksh. 5500 per term in its budget. Students squeeze themselves into desks (not lockers). Somehow they manage to fit half the student population into a five by seven room without a care in the world because after all, the only luxury they can speak of is the clean pit latrine at school.
It is easier for a hooker found selling her wares in the dark alleys of Koinange Street to attest her virginity beyond any reasonable doubt, than it is convinced on a balance of probabilities that this is a private school. But it is even more incredulous to be convinced that against all odds, this amalgamation of wattles and hamlets manages to become the third best overall school in the whole of Embakasi District! Talk of big things wrapped in small packages!
However, my disbelief is finally embarrassed when we managed to hold court and interact with the students for close to an hour. And the Human Rights theme is just what the doctor ordered. Because this is a subject that they have been taught in practice for as long as they have been around. They explain in cold dead words the struggle of having to deal with police brutality, forced evictions, habitual murder and insecurity. From where I am I can see madam odiero cringe and fidget on the plastic VIP seat offered. Perhaps trying to resist the adamant urge to shed tears…or excuse herself to go throw up.
It is funny though how I look at this lady from London and see a white woman struggling to understand the new concept, the new perspective the new definition of what struggling is all about. She is just one week old in Kenya and has AI has found a place for her somewhere in the suburbs of Lavington. Plus she is dropped and picked everyday by the driver. It is funny the way it is second to nature how I readily castigate her aside to be unaware of what life in the ghetto feels like, when these same kids look at me the same way.
To them I am probably the immediate heir to some wealthy honcho who has made it big thanks to his daddy’s deep pocket and tall friends, and now he is even rolling with a white mamaa. There inquisitive little minds forces them to put me in the same scales as her, because neither of us able to get what we think is the ghetto scent. See, they have been brainwashed and cannot understand how I could come from Huruma and call myself a sufferer, or how I could put on a Van Husein knock off from Ngara and carry a Nokia 7210 supernova , and then come around to say that I share their pain.
Because according to them, we both get into the same Premio and leave at the end of the day.
But what they do not get is that while the car drives off, we silently look back through the side mirror and as we fade into the bright white distance, so do they slowly fade into our imaginations.
The sickening thought that the books of account from the Member of Parliament in that region probably reads that almost five million was spent on improving learning standards of schools is nauseating. That the rough and ready simulation of a bridge supposedly cost him thirty million. I try to imagine how he sleeps at night knowing that he feeds off the lives of the people he is supposed to be serving.The students of Bahati Secondary are just but 120 of the scores of lives that he has successfully ruined and literally thrown into the dumps. I wish I could get time at talk to him, reason with him. Maybe I would let him in on what they say about karma and female dogs.
The reek lethargically follows us even as we make that turn back to Mombasa Road. This is how Mukuru kwa Njenga smells… Of kids zealous to make it big only to be confronted by the harsh reality that the government doesn’t give a bat’s nipple about them. Of girls escaping from home because her mother is too busy to notice that her father and uncle forcibly pinned her down and took away the only innocence she had left; thus inducting her into womanhood. Of ladies with closed minds and open legs because the rent has to be paid, and five mouths to feed. Because there is no love in Mukuru kwa Njenga ; just empty condom wrappers and brown bottles ready to be discarded like her.
This is just how the neighborhood smells folks. This is how it reeks. This is how our slums stinks. And no matter how far we drive, no matter how beautiful our homes are…no matters how many roses and sunflowers we have at our doorsteps and windows, the stench from the ghetto will always hang around like a clingy ex.