Kabon’s husbands

Kabon’s first husband, was a man from Mutei, whom she only referred to as Tililio. She went to his house, carrying a pot, two sotet, a skin mat for serving ugali and a bag of ghee, gifts from her mother for her to start a new life with. A year later she had a baby, but two months into suckling, a bizarre, flesh-eating disease infected the baby and it died within a week. The same disease leapt on Tililio and his brother, and they died within a few months. Tortured, Kabon walked back to her father’s house, leaving behind the gifts that her mother had given her.

Her second husband was from Marakwet, a mean man who lived in a hut hid inside thickets. He kept countless sheep and as soon as Kabon arrived, he left this duty to her and disappeared for months on end, claiming he was visiting friends who were never identified. Kabon kept tending to the sheep, in a land devoid of people, where she had to mind the elephants and buffaloes that roamed about, and shiver at night as hyenas wailed around her hut, eager to get in and bite on a lamb. Her frustration was immense, and she waited for her father, Chemngar, to pass by so that she could plead to go back to him. Chemngar was a renowned arbiter and his skills were sought all across the Kerio valley, and he was on such a mission in Marakwet when Kabon met him. Seeing how his daughter was living, Chemngar said this could not be and walked with her back to his house.

She found her third husband, my great-grandfather, Kipkigey Arap Ayobei, waiting for her back home. Kipkigey’s first wife had left him and their child, and ran off to Nandi. In his loneliness, Kipkigey was glad to start a new life with Kabon. Since he had lost all his livestock to Nandi raids, he moved his young family to Pokot, where he could tend to cattle belonging to Pokot families and be repaid with calves. There, he could also hunt elephants and sell the ivory to Kamba tradesmen who would walk up the Uasin Gishu plateau searching for this.

It was in Pokot that Kabon gave birth to my grandmother Kimoi, who was named Chebelio as a child, because she was born on the day that Kipkigey killed an elephant. By the time their third child, Chebo Kimukony was born, Kipkigey’s calves had grown into a considerable herd and afraid that the Pokot would be envious, he decided to walk back home. But as he trekked down the Uasin Gishu plateau, he marveled at the grassland. There were no trees then in the plateau, just lush grass that could feed cows and when the sun was out, for one to sit on and reflect. New men had come to the land then, white men who rode on horses and went about tilling the land with oxen. Gone were the Karamojong, Maasai and Nandi.

Kipkigey decided to build his home on the plateau and not go down to Kerio valley. And it was here that Kabon’s last child, Toroitich, was born. I met Toroitich as a young child in the 90s. By then she was old and blind, but she giggled with happiness when she touched my hands. She asked me to spit on her white hair so that she could bless me. She rarely met her elder sister’s grandchildren and when she did, it was always a joyful moment for her.

And Kabon Said

Begin from a place of love
A place of deep memory
And of brotherhood
That place which held you
While you waited

One day,
All that you claimed,
Shall hide from you
The blue sky of Koibarak
The siriek trees that bore fruit
The warm, white soil.

But even then,
Don’t despair
Look at the world
At the chaos that scares you
The wide tarmac road that leads to Iten,
The tangle of boda bodas, rode by men with rough voices
The dusty Peugeot 504s that hoot
Look up when the church bell tolls
Take in the smell of money
And include yourself in this world.

Even though it shouts
Even though it pushes and shoves
Open your eyes wide
And include yourself.

Plane Conversations on Rwandair

He told me that Rwanda has the highest concentration of tin in the world, and that this tin is used in almost everything, including make-up. And the demand only keeps rising, with a ton selling at $20,750 as opposed to $12,000 just three years back. But the most fascinating resource were the Simandou hill ranges of Guinea, which are composed entirely of iron ore. But the Guinea government is unwilling to license mining, until they are built a railway from Simandou to Conakry. As I worried about the equatorial forest that covers Simandou, how the place will be stripped and tunnelled, he told me not to worry.

“Our company takes pictures beforehand. We restore a habitat to its original state. We are not like the Dutch. They abandoned this mine in Rwanda when the genocide broke out. Now that place is a disaster.”

He is going back to that Rwandan mine. It still has rich veins of tin that promise to deliver the highest recorded output for the next twenty years. Though, he would love the most to go back to Liberia. When, he was there, searching for iron ore, they would just find thick strips of gold intertwined with the ore, but they were unable to mine because they were still not licensed.

To him, China is the worst. They destroyed the steel industry in South Africa, by buying all the essential iron ore components from all over the world, and stockpiling, forcing South African steel companies to close down and lay off workers.

When I told him about Tullow exploring oil in Kenya, he was curious. But then he said Kenya should not be worried about oil, but water. The Third World War would be over water, he said. The world will fight over the Great Lakes of Africa. For water is finishing all over the world, with the levels in dams going lower each year. South Africa is even thinking about using the giant, underground aquifer that lies between Johannesburg, Pretoria and Northern Cape. Though, no cost-effective energy system has yet been developed to pull the water up.

“Oh look,” he said, finally. “Just one hour left before we land. I better nap.”

I was left wondering about a Third World War on water. Outside the window, the continent was asleep, dark, unknowable.

I have many names

I have many names.

My fondest were my childhood nicknames, Dodo and Mod, used only by my siblings and never uttered outside our family compound. Dodo lasted longer than Mod, which petered out when I was about five. To think of Dodo, is to remind myself of my siblings’ strained voices, how they would drag out the name when I was annoying, “Aki Dodo what is it now?” “Gai, aki what is wrong with Dodo?” Mod carried power. It gave me the ability to choose. I would call myself Mod to reject chores handed to me, rather cheekily, by my siblings. “Mod, Mod every day! Mod, Mod, everything! Leave me alone!” I would say, and put an end to that.

When I watched the German detective series Derrick, I named myself Moddy Derrick. I loved this name, how cool it sounded as it washed away my sub-saharanness. It was also the name of the titular character of a fantasy novel I would write in high school, on the back pages of my physics exercise book, while the teacher was writing formulas on the blackboard. In the story, Moddy Derrick was a philosopher of magic in medieval Europe, who wore a fur coat so fine it could be pulled through the eye of a needle. As it happens, the teacher caught me one day. His eyes narrowed as he leafed through.

“What is this Timothy?” he asked, calling me by my Christian name which I would later hide. “Are these lyrics to a song?”

I just hunched on my desk as I doodled with my Speedo pen.

I hid Timothy because it fails to represent me. To call me Timothy is to point out an inherent flaw in my identity. It is to acknowledge that at one point, my ancestry was told that their names and their ways of worshipping were inadequate, that they needed a new god who demanded new names. It is to acknowledge that at one point, a member of my family lost confidence in his name, and chose one that a colonialist provided. It is evidence of a painful history, how my great-grandmother Kabon, who spent her lifetime worshipping the sun, was forced to accept the name Elizabeth by an Irish priest as she lay dying. Because with just Kabon, she couldn’t enter heaven. So for now, you will only see Timothy if you send me money through M-pesa 🙂.

There are more names:

Kiprop. Given to me because I was born while it rained. For me the name is deeper than just rain. In the olden days, I would be forced to give up on this name, because it was a childhood name, suitable only while I was still drinking porridge. If I survived to warrior-hood, I would have to call myself either Arap Mutai or Arap Ruto, the former in reference to my father and the latter to my older brother. So, to retain Kiprop in my adulthood means that I have retained my childhood. I have retained the ability to be curious, the ability to imagine, the ability to question.

Cheruiyot. Given to me by my mother because I was born at night, when all life, aside from the evil, was asleep. I treasure the few instances when my mother would call me Cheruiyot. She had a gentle way of uttering it. It turned my world softer and kinder. Unlike Kiprop, which had sharp K and P sounds, which would turn even harsher when I was shouted at.

Maritim. Given to me because I was born just three months after my grandfather, Chemitei Arap Kibabii, had passed on. His brothers came to hold me as a baby and said that Chemitei had not stayed long in the bush, but had come back to the world through me. They named me Maritim, because my soul was eager to come back to this world than to wander in the bushes of the spirit world.

Yelwa. A name Abdvl gave me at the Farafina workshop. The Hausa equivalent of Kiprop, meaning one who was born while it rained. I accepted the name because of the Y and L sounds. Just like Cheruiyot, it turned the world softer. Thank you Abdvl.

There is still a name out there, which is desperately searching for me. It has V and Z sounds. It is African. If you know the name, bring it to me.

Please.

Kipkigey Arap Ayobei

My mum went to Iten yesterday and met a teacher from Kessup Girls. The teacher told her that he had seen her somewhere, and asked if she ever taught at Kessup. My mum said no, then added that she studied in Kessup primary school in the 1950s. As they spoke, the teacher told mum that he had heard of a renowned man who was in Kessup then, a man called Kipkigey, who spoke to his clan to donate land for the secondary school to be built. My mum smiled, because Kipkigey was her grandfather, and the husband to Kabon, my great-grandmother whom I often speak fondly about.

His real name was Chebii Arap Ayobei and this is how he came to be called Kipkigey. Just after the First World War, the colonial government pushed for the people in Elgeyo-Marakwet to grow bananas. They considered the Keiyo to be generally lazy with the habit of absconding manual work. Then, with falling world prices on wheat and maize, the Agricultural ministry was pressed to put the Keiyo to use, by having them grow a viable cash crop. Agriculturalists went to Keiyo reservations to test the soil and to grow banana saplings. One, was a botanist who walked around with Chebii to record native flora and their uses. The community grew fond of the English botanist and called him Kipkigey, and since he spent so much time with Chebii, they told Chebii that he was also another Kipkigey. At the mention of this, Chebii would turn furious, which only served to reinforce the name.

When AIC church spoke to Kipkigey about their intention to start a girls’ secondary school, to allow girls to have an education closer home as opposed to travelling all the way to Kapropita. Kipkigey spoke to his clan and influenced them to give off a section of the land on the second escarpment, for this purpose.

Kipkigey loved mum a lot. One time, as a young girl in class one, walking from Sergoit to Kessup for school, my mum met Kipkigey on his way to a wedding. He had smeared his face with white ochre and had a head adornment made out of ostrich feathers. He had even put on a cloak made from new velvet monkey skin. He saw my mother and smiled, then told her that he had nothing to give her then, but that she should wait for him before going home, because he was going to bring her honey and a little beer, provided that she never reported him to her parents.

Mum visited Kipkigey just after Kabon, his first wife, had passed on. Mum, afraid of witnessing his grief, was hesitant about going straight to his house and spent some time walking around Kessup instead, even buying mandazi. But eventually she walked to his compound. Kipkigey’s second wife, seeing mum’s anxiety, ushered her in, saying that Kipkigey yearned to see her. Kipkigey was infirm then, and mum found him alone in his hut, sitting on a skin mat with a skin plate beside him, which had his lunch. His eyes lit when he saw mum and he held his hands up and said, “Just greet me. I haven’t touched her dead body. I am clean.” My mum clasped his hands then and found them bony, the flesh sunk in. Despite having eaten, he ate mum’s mandazi heartily and asked her to always bring him more.

By the time he died, Kipkigey had turned Catholic. The priest at Iten told him every person baptised had to be buried at a mission. So his body was ferried to Sing’ore and buried in one of the open graves at the mission, which had been dug specifically for Christians.

Time Travelling

We had an orchard at our farm in Iten. On a section of land that was sunken and completely surrounded by a grassy terrace, we grew orange, lime, lemon, loquat, plum, peach, mulberry, apple, avocado, mango and strawberry. Over time the orchard acquired a twig fence and a gate that was attached to the trunk of a giant podo tree we always referred to as Father Christmas. I feared passing under the shadow of Father Christmas because I was told that it hid an enormous python that slept at a hollow inside its trunk during the day and slid out at night, roving around the farm, looking for a plump boy to devour.

Right next to the podo tree, was our chicken house, which was sadly empty. We had acquired a flock of Rhode Island Red, as had many farmers around, with the best intentions of rearing them for meat and egg, only for a honey badger to sneak in at night and suck the blood off half the stock. The surviving half descended into manic cannibalism after that and we had to slaughter them all.

I spent most of my childhood in the orchard. Mostly because I was a shy and sensitive child, who preferred my own peace and quiet rather than the rough and tumble that accompanied any association with my classmates or siblings. But it was more than that. It was in this orchard that I spent time with Kabon, my great-grandmother who died thirty years before I was born. I don’t know how to explain it but her spirit would swell and fill up the orchard when I was there, and we would have the most animated conversation for hours on end.

She was everywhere; in the rustle of leaves under a sudden wind; in the eyes of stray cats that would look at me from a distance, only turning brave enough to come close when I gave them pieces of meat; in the tortoises I would always find walking about, which my mother never allowed me to keep, instead having Rough Hands carry them off to Saint Patrick’s High School.

Kabon was a dim figure, always hunched and garbed in a skin cloak that bore that piss-like smell of old age. She would only listen to me as I spoke. At times, when I closed my eyes, she would come and trail her fingers over my shoulder. I would always ask her to take me back to her world but that would only make her fade away.

But I remember one cold day, when fog poured like thick cream over the orchard, I heard her scream and I immediately closed my eyes. And there I was, inside her low-roofed hut which lay amongst the rocks of the second Kerio valley escarpment. She had clutched my grandmother, then a tiny baby, over her shoulder and her eyes had turned a glaring white from fright. “Kiprop,” she said. “I am all alone in the hut and my husband has gone to hunt for elephants. I just saw a dwarf walk outside my hut and I don’t know what to do.”

I walked outside. I remember how the sun shone on the nape of my neck, just hot and irritating then as it was in the world I lived in. Before me were a cluster of thickets and I saw the dwarf trying to hide inside. I called out to him and he walked to me, a tiny man with a grey beard, a skin wrap over his loins and a quiver of arrows over his shoulders. The dwarf held his shaking hands before me. “I don’t come to harm anyone. I am just looking for honey. I have family too.”

I walked back into the hut and told Kabon so.

When Dying Eyes Close

Sometimes when dawn spreads,

Her rosy fingertips

It bleaches upon a skeleton

Of a poet who sat too long

Through many cold and lonely nights

Only to die of a stroke

 

Sometimes when a bee flits past

To seek for a flower

It cuts its wing on the edge of a blade

That sunk deep in a woman’s neck

When a lover became an animal

Consumed by echoes of a dark cave

 

Sometimes when dew lasts

It finds the tale of a soldier

Who grew tired of a leading hand

That had threatened to shrivel his mind

Till he broke free and sought for a new truth

With a lot of cold upon his palm

 

Sometimes the promises of a new hello

Only waits for he who slept soundly dreaming

Of the river his house would stand by

Or of ripe corn splitting dry in the sun

Or how far away he would travel

If he could use her toe nails as units of currency