It rains differently on this other side of the big valley. Here, the rains give you a warning and enough time. The first sign is in how the weather changes; the brightness of the city dulls out, those tall glass buildings that like to prick the belly of the sky no longer blinds you with reflections of the sun. Colour disappears. Everything is grey. People start walking around with at least two layers of clothes, and those who did not get the hints early catch small small pneumonia. And so when the rains come, it is almost expected. You can smell it in the air as it grows nearer and nearer, and then the first drops fall. It is a marathon rain, this one; slow and consistent and it never stops, hiding the sun for weeks.
That is not how it rains back home. At least not always. Our rain does not announce itself. The earth’s mood just changes just like that. And when it decides to rain, it means serious business. It is a sprint of a downpour; sudden, swift, and devastating. The winds from the lake blow like they have been paid, the heavens roar in anger, and in just an hour or two, anything that was standing in its way is left standing no more. Then just as quickly as it had begun, it ends.
Sometimes when I think about it, this kind of rain is a metaphor for the sort of life I have lived. At one moment, we were a happy family of twelve kids and two parents, and then, as if someone flicked a switch, we were no longer happy nor a family. I was the eleventh born in a decent household in the late 90s and early 2000s. It was a time when things were changing in Kenya – and people no longer lived while holding their breaths. My father was – from what I hear – an important person working at Kenya Railways. People called him Japuonj, I am told, but I doubt he was a teacher.
We lived in Mucatha, on Thika Road. It was a bit of a charmed existence, but only to the extent that we did not lack anything almost as much as we did not want for anything either. Japuonj would sometimes fly out to Japan and bring back toys – and me being among the last borns, you know that my gifts were always assured. On weekends when the indomitable Gor Mahia was playing in Kasarani, we joined the green army in beating drums and singing and being a riot. Then around 2002 – when I was all of six years old – the storm came and went with six of my siblings, all in one year. A reminder of the faint line that draws who lives and who doesn’t.
Akech and Joanna – both my elder sisters – were the first to go in strange circumstances too similar to be a coincidence. Their deaths (separated only by a month or so) began as stomach aches, and in a matter of hours, they were gone. Then Nancy followed – she had gone back to shagz, and then one day someone was rolling a tyre rim from the roof, painfully unaware of the little girl playing outside. When the junk of metal hit her on the head, she closed her eyes and never opened them again. The only consolation was that she passed away on the spot – she did not suffer in pain like her other two sisters. Three others disappeared and then turned up dead. Two were found at the back of our house two days later, while the last girl’s remains were found abandoned in an incomplete building in the neighborhood.
And just like that, our family was sliced in half.
It sounds unbelievable when you read things like that – even me, had I not lived through it, I would probably not believe it. It seems almost improbable that all that could happen to just one family outside a Nigerian movie. But it did because I remember those girls. I remember them being there, and them not being there. The details of the brutality that ended their lives are the only things I would later hear from my mother, because, again, I was six. I remember burying them. I remember the way constant argument replaced laughter, how the world turned into black and white. I remember feeling Japuonj’s absence long before my mother packed our things and left with us.
As the stories go, he blamed her for it. They all did. Some said she was cursed. Others, like him, said that she had a hand in all of it. People talked, but none of those voices hurt as much as her husband’s. She had given him the best of her years and twelve children, and so for him to be so cruel as to imagine that she would take her own children’s lives? That accusation wrung out all the love and trust that marriage had soaked over the years. In anger, she took her remaining six kids, got onto the next thing smoking and left. If there were any part of us that hoped Japuonj would come looking for us, it was proved wrong. He did not bother. To her credit, neither did she.
And if you think this is the part where the rain started slowing down, then you haven’t been listening. Leaving Japuonj drove us right into the eye of the storm; Korogocho.
What your mother teaches you as a child depends on where you are raised. While other mothers taught their children how to swim, ride a bike, cross the road and how to pronounce crisps properly, one of the earliest lessons my mother taught me was how to brew and sell chang’aa. A series of unfortunate events had seen us move from Mucatha to Juja and then now to Korogocho slum. By this time, two other elder siblings had left the nest. Being a woman of low education and exposure and with (now four) kids to fend for, she picked up a few tricks along the way, but the one that stuck was chang’aa. At first, she was merely retailing it; buying it from suppliers and distributing at a profit. Up until she realized that there was much more money to be made making it yourself. As she learned, so did I. It is all about boiling and condensing kangara. And if you do not know what kangara is, do not bother Googling because you won’t find it.
If you have watched the news about police raiding chang’aa dens, then you have probably seen them pouring out some brown liquid out of iron drums, coated with thick soot. That brown liquid is Kangara – a mixture of water, skari nguru and formalin (yes, the same one used to preserve corpses in mortuaries). You mix them up and let it ferment for three days, and after that you distill it. Up until I went to high school, I did not know that what we did back then had a name as complicated as distillation. All we knew was that you boil kangara in a drum while covering the top with a lid. Inside the drum, there is a bucket sitting on a stool. While the kangara cooks, vapour comes up, you pour water on the top to cool the steam which then condenses into a liquid – clear like moonlight – inside the bucket. You must be careful, though, to regulate the heat so that kangara does not boil over into the bucket.
The trick was to gather the ingredients during the day and cook throughout the night. For four jerrycans of chang’aa, you must cook till dawn. And if a cop came around, there was nothing that 200 bob and a glass couldn’t fix. Sometimes when the big ones passed by at night during a msako, our friends in the force would pretend to be doing their jobs – pour out our kangara, bundle us into the back of a Black Maria and into the station we went. They’d arrest all of us – mother and her four kids. But every time, after the spectacle had died down after a day or two, they’d let us go. After all, cutting down our biashara did not mean less revenue for us only, but for them as well.
I was 10 when we ventured into this business; any life that existed outside this environment was either a distant memory or an imagination. Too far beyond reach, either way. Presently, we needed food and rent. At first, we did this only because we needed to survive, but then after we settled and life became more bearable, we did it because it was the only thing we were good at.
You know, all this time, nobody spoke about going to school until Muhia brought it up. He was our neighbor and landlord as well. For some reason, this man treated me like his child. Not just because of his kindness, but also because of the way he would discipline me. See, two things happened with time. The first one is that while I only helped to brew and sell chang’aa, my mother drank it as well. She got high on her supply – cardinal mistake. And when the drink had taken her head, the fires of hell overflowed. The second thing is that you grow up like this and soon you start to think that simply because you help your mother brew alcohol, then you can talk back at her the way you want. So, of course, we had fights. But to Muhia it did not matter who was right or wrong; I was not to speak to my mother like that; and when I did, he’d punish me for it. The good old kiboko had not gone out of style yet.
In late 2007, Muhia took me to an organization called Hands of Care and Hope; a rehab facility run by missionary sisters. At first, their rigidity was too annoying; always strict about time and dressing. But they also fed us and talked to us about God. After a while, I found myself going there every day from 8 am. Then in the evening, I’d go back to help my mom with her biashara. In 2008, at 12 years of age, they took me to Daniel Komboni Primary School, and I joined as a class 3 student. I did not mind it. I was bigger than other kids in class, but not just in size – it helped that I was smarter too. And I would have stayed in school had some thieves not accosted my mother sometime in 2009 with knives. So I had to go back and take over the business while she recovered for her wounds.
I went back to the missionaries in 2010, but this time, they’d built their own school, and I was enrolled in Class 6. They had also constructed a church, St. John’s Catholic Church, where I became an altar boy. I was baptized in this church. In 2012, I sat for KCPE and got my 287 marks. Luckily for me, by the time I needed to join Form One, the missionary sisters had already built a secondary school, and I ended up at St. Francis of Assisi Secondary School.
My life primarily revolved around school, church, and our brewery. What I did not know then was that the rain had started to let. The storm had passed, my life no longer thundered, and now it was just raining kawaida.
It started as a singing group. They came to the church and were given a room to practice in, but I did not give them much attention, because singing did not list that highly amongst the things I prioritized. Then bit by bit they started having musical instruments.: Drums, trumpets, those tulong pipes with holes, and small guitars that you put on your neck and stroke with a string. Listening to them play as I went on with my altar boy duties was refreshing, and I admired them from afar, but I still wasn’t keen on joining them. Until one day a boy (now my very close friend) – Samuel Otieno – dragged me to class. When I got there, I was told to pick up the tuba because nobody was playing the tuba.
The thing is, I did not know which of those trumpets was a tuba until I saw one and I understood why nobody was playing it. It was too big, and then to play it, you have to wear it like a coat first. And that is how I learned to play the tuba. That is how I became a ghetto classic. When word came that there were auditions for the Safaricom Youth Orchestra, I went, tried out, and I got in.
The moment I met music, it became a distraction. It was not as if my plate wasn’t already full. I had church duty, I was a member of Ghetto Classics, I was in high school and now I was in Safaricom Youth Orchestra. The problem with this was, now who was going to help my mother with the brewery? Something had to give – and many times, that thing ended up being music. It was the only thing I could dispose of when time needed to be made. I had to seek help, so I went direct to Elizabeth Njoroge – the founder of Ghetto Classics. She stepped up, offering to pay our rent and give food to take care of home so that I could focus on my music.
The brewing slowed down after that, but it did not end entirely. At least not for my mother. I only went in when I needed to. Yes, rent and food were catered for, but living requires more than a roof and a plate. Also, brewing had become a bad habit now, a sort of guilty pleasure; shaking it off would not happen instantly. But after I finished high school in 2016, the brewery shut down completely. By the time we closed shop, I had been brewing for ten years. Sometimes I do not even know where all that time went.
Only after the storm has passed – when the air smells fresh, and the waters are gushing beneath your feet, and the butterflies have come out – that you wonder why you were so scared of it. It was never meant to last forever. Give it time, it will pass, and the sun will shine again. When Safaricom Jazz started happening, things began to change for Ghetto Classics. Not just because we started playing with local and international musicians other people only dream(ed) of meeting, leaving alone working with, like Kirk Whalum, Hugh Masekela, Manu Dibango, Oliver Mtukudzi, Nairobi Horns Project, Chris Bittok, Marcus Miller, etc. But also because the money it pumped into GC meant they could hire people. Today, I am not only a teacher at Ghetto Classics but also the official fundi wa instruments. Then last year, Elizabeth called me into one of their admin meetings and named me the Deputy Manager of Ghetto Classics.
Situations change. In April, my mother will leave this city to go back to shagz. There is a one bedroomed house waiting for her there. Her drinking stopped, by the way. My other siblings are in school, and the smallest of us all is joining university next year. On the 20th of next month, I am also off to Germany for a brief course on fixing musical instruments.
Sometimes I think about them, you know? The other half of my family. I think about the ones who left and wonder about what they’d think of us now. I remember my six sisters who went back to the soil in 2002 – and hope that its their absence fertilized the ground on which we are now growing. At least that way, it wasn’t all in vain.
And I think about my mother. I think about the decisions she has had to make, and I get it. Really, I do. I understand. I just wish she knew that it is her time to breathe now. Because when she heard that I was to go to Germany and I needed my birth certificate to apply for a passport and visa, she hid it. She hid it because she was scared. Scared that I would go to Germany and not come back. After being left by so many people who should have stayed, she has grown used to people leaving her. Permanency is as incomprehensible to her as the word incomprehensible itself. She is one of those people who are so used to losing that she cannot tell when she is winning. I wish she knew that I am not one of those people. I am Kevin Obara.
And I will always come back.
AS TOLD BY KEVIN OBARA TO MAGUNGA WILLIAMS