They came out in droves. From every corner of their little sandy town, they all came. Old men with shukas wrapped lazily around their waists. Middle-aged women with hardy hands. Children with mucus loosely hanging from their nostrils.
The word spread like bushfire, from one little hut to the next…the visitors had come, the intriguing visitors with cameras and money. So the residents of the town came out from every nook, hoping to get lucky that day. From huts with thatch roofs and stone buildings with unassuming mabati roofs. They stopped whatever they were doing, except school, to see who had come to gawk at their condition this time.
At daybreak our resourceful handler had guided us from our small luxurious seafront hotel to a motorboat. The motorboat driver, a chubby cheerful fella of about 27, had sung all the way to this little cove 40 minutes away. At some point during the journey he had decided we should drive the thing, if that is what you do to a motorboat. It is not the same thing as driving a car, I can tell you that, although the steering concept is pretty much the same.
You sit there with your Red Bull and dirty orange life jacket and you pretend to be in power. The journey is in your hands, all of it. You move the steering stick right and the boat moves left. You increase the throttle, and she gives way. I must have one of this, you tell yourself. When I am old and filthy rich. I will come down to this little gorgeous place and get me a small motorboat. I will bring down Nairobi girls to this little heaven, and watch them marvel at the splendour for two hours before promptly declaring it too quiet to be funky.
The photographer, the producer, the location manager, our self-appointed production manager, and the motorboat owner did entrust their lives to my amateur motorboat skills for almost half the journey. I do not know what I did to inspire such trust. I had never handled a motorboat before, and here we were, five people whistling away as I guided the small blue boat. But then again they were all Kenyans, and Kenyans do not mind amateurs being in control.
We were headed to Matondoni.
If you have ever been to Lamu Island, and sat at the seafront sipping tea or a beer, you must have marvelled at the little island. It is fascinating and scary at the same time. Once you take in the warmth of the night and the cold breeze from the sea, you will wonder how many people have sat where you now sit, over millennia, and marvelled at Lamu too. Every other concrete jungle we have we have built in the last century. Except this little island. This one has stood there for hundreds of years, thousands even. It has been ruled by the Portuguese, the Omans, the Sultans, Britain, and what we now call Kenya. It has seen more war than an island of its size should. It has been looted, plundered, burnt down and besieged. But it is still alive, and bustling. Its seafront is breath taking. The only traffic is that of donkeys, and they have them in the thousands. The food is marvellous, the people warm and welcoming. They walk through narrow streets built millennia and centuries before them, at a different time, and yet they, like the builders of the fort and the streets, are minute details on the cogs of history.
But Matondoni is not like that. It is a sleepy town you get to after many miles of mangrove splendour. The only modern thing in it is the jetty that holds back the waters when the tide is high. Everything else is vintage mud and thatch. The school is new too, and there are shining things here and there. The donkeys are everywhere. The donkeys are like Nairobi’s matatus. You learn things from riding an ass, I learnt. One guy even calls his donkey pen ‘Ocampo.’ Corny, random guy, very corny. We all saw what you did there.As news of our arrival coursed through its sandy, rapidly heating streets, its residents came out. The school principal demanded that we detour and talk to the kids. She was so polite, and the kids were so sweet that to say no would have sucked the life out of our expedition. We were hunting for an old basket weaver, and baskets, and whatever other concepts of photos we could come up with during our time there. At the beach we had made a valiant captain pose against the sunrise. The impromptu production team of the location manager, the producer and I had stood in the cold receding waters. Someone had made a corny joke about balls and boobs bobbing because of buoyancy. We had all laughed and seen the captain’s junk as he descended from his dhow. A smooth and jutting rock had punished me for walking into the water barefooted. The sun had risen too fast, and I had seen death. But that was over and now we were inside, taking photos of everything.
At first it was fascinating, and then it was scary. There was something fearful about how they all presented their identity cards. As if they revered the document. As if it was their everything. Like a bullet proof vest that had stood between them and bullets. A hero who had just waltzed in when the death or the incarceration loomed. The men had it hidden by their wives, the gatekeepers of fate. The women promptly brought it nicely tied to some point in their shukas. Sometimes hidden under their breasts. They bundled all of them together, and wrapped delicate knots to secure them in place. Some were old, but most were new. They held them out funny; as if they respected it beyond the level a public document should ever be respected.
I never asked but I knew. I was on the edge of being Kenyan. People have asked me for my ID even before I got it. Like that time a keen bouncer at a club asked if I was even 14 yet. I respect the document, but I have never feared it. I smile whenever the MPESA agents gawk at my five names. I except it now, so I offer a corny line and smile. I pull it out instinctively at the bank, and whenever I am accessing most office buildings. Sometimes I impress girls by proving that I have all those names. Once in a while it hits me that if I look anything like that person in the photo, that mass of darkness who went to the application process donning a yellow shirt, I should not be walking around during the day.
No one has ever doubted I am Kenyan even if I didn’t have the document. Hell, I could grab a random person’s ID and the guards would just stamp me through. The bouncers only look at the date anyway. And do math in their little heads. Counting just to make sure the ‘quoted age’ is always higher than how old you are. If you are not 18, it is 18. If you are 18 it is 21. If you are 21 it is 25. When you get to 25 it is 30….and on and on and on.
But none of them has ever doubted my Kenyanness. It reeks anyway. My ability to negotiate down bribes. My reverence for cops that comes from the interaction being a business interaction. My ability to forget everything else for politics. My cheap bar talk. My ogling at everyone in traffic. My buying things while I sit in traffic. I am Kenyan to the core, I have always known that. But in Matondoni you begin to question what being Kenyan is.
Some of these people are over 60 and have outlived the independent Kenyan state. They have been under a Sultan, a powerless one but a sultan nonetheless. Their Kenyanness has been doubted many times. The government has done them a favour and brought them registration offices to make them Kenyan. Once in a while at least, with the implied threat that their Kenyan citizenship is a gift and not a birthright. They still refer to where we who live inland as ‘Kenya’ because to them, they are a stateless people. The only times they matter is during elections and whenever their neighbors massacre each other. Once in a while someone will come and build them a jetty, and a fat politician who flies to Nairobi every week will claim he brought it to them.
The media cameras will arrive after a massacre, or after a group of raiders ventures this far. Tourists will come in droves. Producers and filmmakers have a season, like the waters. Almost every group will sort out the groups by whether they are Kenyan. Sometimes the IDs will get them paid, but it is not just a source of income, it is central to survival. Who knows when deranged security forces will descend upon them and demand that they display their Kenyanness or be shot or lost in the cells of the local police stations? Who knows when someone will doubt their Kenyanness since they left their identity cards at home?
To be Kenyan is to be stupid, but there isn’t much choice but to hope. Only the stupid hope anyway. Only they look at the current condition and declare promptly ‘tomorrow will be a better day!’ You have to stupid to be happy. But we are not happy. Someone is short changing us. Someone whose eyes we avoid when we see him or her looking back at us in the mirror. Someone who has an identity card in an old aging leather wallet. Or a purse. Or hidden away in a bra. Someone is not demanding that to be Kenyan be a birthright and not a document. That people cannot be sorted like cattle in a shed, doomed if they are the wrong color and forgot their documents at home. But then again, to be Kenyan is to be stupid and ‘good.’ The only truly good Kenyan is a dead Kenyan. Worry not, he can vote too.
Last modified: July 9, 2014