There was a time when phones had memories smaller than a pup’s. Mine was a hand me down from my elder brother; a Nokia that opened up like a laptop, with a keypad arranged just like a computer’s. You could flick open the screen and then rotate it 360 degrees. It was the kind of phone you did not play with in a matatu, but however fancy, it still could not hold much. It could only handle all of five songs; meaning, the music I could have on my device had to be my top 5. I have always loved crooners. Ballads in which people emptied themselves out in music. I cannot say I remember exactly which songs were on my phone at the time, but I remember two. The first was His Mistakes, and for the life of me I could not figure out whether it was by Ne-Yo or Usher. Then there was Haturudi Nyuma by Kidum that I could not stop listening to, however much I tried.
I listened to that song on my way to school and back, in the library as I pretended to study, at home before bed, and it was my ringtone for calls and text messages.
It is about that period – circa 2009/10 – when my brother decided he would take me and my then girlfriend out. He drove from Umoja in that Toyota Premio that he could not stop speaking about, picked us up from our hostels in Madaraka, then made his way to Langata Road. He had just spruced that ride up, lavished it with three screens even; one at the front and two at the back of the driver and shotgun seats. So when my girlfriend and I sat at the back, he slipped in a CD of Bongo mixes.
Every so often, he adjusted the rear view mirror to look at the two rascals at the back. But we both knew it was not check on us to see if we were enjoying his entertainment. Uh-uh. He was surveilling us, like a teacher on duty, making sure we weren’t up to any, eerrm, mischief.
The Premio pulled up at the gate of the national park, and we found ourselves in a club called Rangers. That was the only time I ever went to that place before KWS shut it down. The people in that place weren’t my agemates at all. They were his. And I would have been annoyed had it not been for the fact that Kidum was performing there that night. We found him in the middle of a set. People pulled up their seats to get close to him. Others who didn’t have any – like us – stood on the fringes, watching. Listening.
It was something of a communion.
When Kidum sang, his voice swallowed the entire room. And when the song that was my ringtone came, my heart sank because Juliana Kanyomozi wasn’t there to do her part. Some other girl from his band sang her part. She was good, but she wasn’t Juliana. Still, when that raspy voice came out and said, Beeeeibi… nakuomba please baki nami, I took the hand I had walked into the club holding, and squeezed it a little.
In the early hours of an an otherwise silent Monday morning in 1974, when the sun is still warming up for its main event, another one is already taking place in Northern Bujumbura. A woman, lying on her back, draws a deep breath, grits her teeth and lets out a cry. A baby is pulled from her, wrapped in a cloth and handed to her to hold. He is big, this baby, and so when neighbors come over to say their congratulations, they say, “Aaaah, mama, you have given birth to a kidum of a child.”
Kidum, as it were, is a jerrycan of water in Kirundi, and when you carry this newborn it is heavy like a household chore. The name is accurate enough to stick. Naturally, that is what everyone ends up calling this child. Everyone, except his parents. They call him by his proper name; Jean-Pierre Nimbona.
Unfortunately for Kidum, he grows up in a time when Burundi is going through a patch of history it would rather forget. Ever since independence, there has always been fighting. This is a country that has not known the silence of a gun. Violence breaks out and disappears like a colony of pimples on an adolescent skin. First there is a King who doesn’t like a certain half of his kingdom, so a coup is plotted, and then then put down by an army general. The Army General abolishes the monarchy and declares himself president. He and the next two presidents get a taste of their own medicine.
Then in 1994, a plane is shot down from the sky in Kigali and everything else follows. Everyone knows what happened in Rwanda after that, but very few know that the exact same thing took place in Burundi. A war between people who, days before, had been friends and lovers, and even family. But simply because some were taller than the others, or had a longer nose, then vermin deserved more respect.
It is against this background that Kidum grows up. In this period when war comes and goes like the rain. On some occasions, when the fighting gets intense, they cross over to DR Congo via Lake Tanganyika and wait for it to pass, then they go back home. It is a nomadic lifestyle, because where there is hatred, nothing is ever permanent.
Before 1994 happens, there is this French teacher who used teaches Kidum’s class. He is the one who convinces Kidum to enroll in a boarding school instead of picking up a gun and chasing revenge. So Kidum ends up in a boarding school to keep up with education, because in a place like this, at a time like this, the lives that are not taken must go on. It is safer to be in a boarding school than at home. There is protection.
But then boys will always be boys, even in a time of war. This one time, a light bulb flickers in someone’s head and he shares the smart idea of them skipping school to go seduce girls in the sister school nearest to them. To get there, they have to cross the forest, which isn’t really hard. Lakini on the day this escape is supposed to happen, Kidum oversleeps. The other boys, it is said, are jealous of him; ati he would stiffen competition for them, so they do not bother waking him up.
In the end, it is this jealousy (and oversleeping) that saves Kidum, otherwise, he would have been turned into forest food.
Someone hears about the plot and leaks the news to soldiers, who then lie in wait for the randy high school boys. As soon as they are deep inside the trees, all seventeen of them are rounded up by the army and their skulls are introduced to pieces of lead. Whether by intention or broken telephone, the word that had leaked to the army was not about a band of adolescent boys plotting to jump school to go check out girls; it is relayed that an army of rebels are scheduled to pass through that forest. Or perhaps the army knew these were just truant teenagers and chose not to care.
Either way, nobody knows. Nobody cared enough to find out.
What we do know is that when the army comes raging through the gates of the school and promises to fish out everyone else who was involved in the plot, Kidum is smart enough to escape and make a beeline for home.
When he gets there, however, he finds a house, not a home. See, right from independence, this has always been a conflict pegged on nothing but – a clash between the Hutu and the Tutsi. If you were one, you fought the other. One problem: Baba Kidum is Hutu and Mama Kidum is Tutsi. Kidum is…. what exactly is Kidum? He is in the middle. He is lukewarm. He is everything, but he is also nothing.
The school boy arrives home to realize that his mother and that half of the family has fled. His father is the only one remaining. He has stayed, presumably, so that in case his son comes back, he will at least find him. But not this son who is both Hutu and Tutsi, and who has returned with an army at his heels. What is a father supposed to do?
Baba Kidum gives Kidum 60 Dollars and tells him to prove he has use of his legs. “Run,” he says, “go far away from here. Go to Tanzania. Or Kenya. Run until you can no longer feel the hot coal under your feet. Take your drumsticks, you have always been a good drummer since you were a boy. Go sing, my son.”
Kidum is sent away from home in 1994, though not in those exact words.
And that is how he finds himself crossing the border into Kenya via Namanga, months later, with an entourage of other refugees, and then one day he wakes up inside Kakuma Refugee Camp. Other people he comes here with are taken away to Australia and Canada, but he refuses to go because he still longs to go back home. Australia is too far away to come back from.
He tells himself that this war, like every other war he has lived in, will end. People cannot fight forever. At some point, they are bound to get tired. So he sits by the radio, listening to BBC, waiting to hear that the soldiers have run out of bullets.
Word comes back to him, all right. It is about home, yes. But not what he has been hoping for. Eight months after getting to Kakuma, when the news about his father arrives, he wraps himself up in a blanket of grief for days. It is not the news that shattered him. It is the hope that had remained. The optimism that things would go back to the way they used to be…bursts open and the ugly reality of his situation stares back.
Baba Kidum had taken ill. With nobody to take care of him, death stepped in and took him away on slow, broken wings. Kidum could not go back to see his grave, or perform cultural last rites. He could not say goodbye properly.
As the dry winds sweep over the parched plains of Kakuma, Jean-Pierre Nimbona says a prayer and watches as it is carried away in a cloud of dust.
Presently, he waits until the crowd starts to grow eager – borderline restless – for him. When he steps on stage, the crowd loses its grip, and everyone storms to the front. It is not exactly a riot, because Country Roads is not that kind of concert. It is not a show you go to and constantly look over your shoulder in fear of who will pinch your phone. A WhiteCap crowd is far more seasoned party, with a bit of moral hygiene. So when I say they storm the stage, it is just hyperbole.
We stand at the front with cans of WhiteCap in one hand and phones in the other. Throughout the day, as it always happens, there have been country musicians belting out sad songs. Jeff Koinange joins in sometimes, but he mostly lip syncs. There is a certain melancholy to country music, though, that mellows a crowd. They are always singing about tragedies.
There is Jolene who won’t leave someone’s husband alone. There is Lucille who picked a fine time to leave her husband, with four hungry children and a crop in the field. There is that coward of the county who gets bullied for so long, he finally turns violent. Then there is the darkest of them all; about a soldier who comes back home from the war to find his wife with a lover, then drinks himself into a whiskey lullaby. And said wife follows suit.
It is all so blue.
Yet so relaxing. That is why they are mostly performed in the afternoon.
The moment the night crawls in, and the crowd is sufficiently lubricated with beer, it is time for some excitement. And that is why when they see Kidum come on stage, they approach the dais with a thirsty urgency.
He is dressed in all white, and so is his band. He has been with this band for about fifteen years now. The Boda Boda band. The name came to him one time in the first decade of the new millennium. He was at the Kenya-Uganda border of Malaba in 2005, and there were bicycles that could carry people in and out of countries without being stopped. Those were the original bodabodas, long before the motorbikes we see in the city these days stole that identity. It was during this time that he was also going through a transition of his own. He had longed to produce music that could defy boundaries, just like those bicycles.
Before 2005, he had mostly been singing songs in Kirundi. In Yaramenje, Ishano and bits of Shamba – his pioneer albums – he made music about peace. They were songs that would bring together a nation that had been torn apart by violence. He was a big deal, but was largely unknown outside Burundi, yet he (by this time), had been naturalized into a Kenyan. And so it is with the Boda Boda band that he began writing in Swahili, and also changed direction to sing love melodies.
Towards the end of that decade, he released Haturudi Nyuma album, and as soon as he did, Kenya could not breathe. Nairobi, in particular, was in awe. All of a sudden, there was this guy who sang in funny sounding Swahili, but still managed to tug at everyone’s heart. He performed all over in the past decade. He was at Rafikis, Psys, Rangers, Oakleys – if you had a bar and space, then you could have Kidum, and if you could have Kidum, then your parking lot could not have space. He sat behind a set of drums, a microphone to his lips and sang with his Boda Boda band. He became a familiar face; he was still big bodied like he had been born, with a line of beard trailing from his bald head, lining up his face like a border of hair, then wrapping itself up around his mouth.
But his voice was the kind you could not forget.
Then he disappeared.
People did not know what happened, but Kidum just melted off the scene like snow off a mountain top. Nothing had happened, though. The man took time off to be with his family; and it is a big one – three marriages, seven children. He wanted to be around his kids, to be a present father to them, and surely, with the life he’d lived, was his absence so indelicate?
But then as the ‘10s waned off, the world woke up one day, switched on its smart TVs and right there on YouTube’s homepage was yellow banner. It was a new track with a zouk background beat. Accompanying it was a voice that had defined a decade.
Kutetenganisha, mimi na wewe eh
Yote ulioambiwa, yamekupotosha, mpaka sasa hunipendi
It sounds like a resurrection.
In many ways, it is.
We stand under the Machakos moonlight as he preps for stage. He cannot begin until a socket is pricked and no wire is hanging loose. He no longer drums, he only sings. He has hired a drummer these days, and for a moment there, I wonder whether that young man understands whose chair he sits on. A bass guitarist on the right of the drummer. A keyboard on the left. At the front left is a trumpeter, and on the far right are a pair of backup singers.
At the center is a man we accepted as ours and gave a second home; and he gifted us back with music. He leads with an acapella reedition of Telenovela, the Boda Boda band joins in, and an else chilly air is warmed with a boundless marriage of melodies.
Then with every cheer that follows, we give Jean-Pierre Nimbona his roses while he can still smell them.