Franschhoek, Moshoeshoe & Pan-Africanism

I met PJ Mofokeng in Franschhoek, Western Cape. PJ took up space. He was loud, in the sense of a man who knows for sure he is speaking the truth. He told me about his publishing outfit Geko, which published Sabata-mpho Mokae’s Dikeledi, a book written in Setswana and which traveled far even without an English translation. I would later be on a panel with PJ, where he introduced himself in Sesotho, in an earth-shaking fashion that elicited ululations from the crowd. Energies were immediately lifted. You couldn’t help being present.

Now, all writers loved hanging out at Elephant & Barrel. To reach it, you had to tunnel between a stretch of houses that looked cinematic with their perfect hues of blue, green and white. There was the option of staying at the Green Room, where you could drink all the wine they wished. But if you wanted an ‘escape’ you went to Elephant & Barrel, where you sat on hardwood benches, drank Windhoek Lager and Carling Black, as you listened to live bands playing Alternative Rock. We all flocked here at night, spicing our animated conversations with alcohol and smoke.

The very first evening, PJ Mofokeng and I were among the last to leave. We had talked and talked and time just flew by. As we stepped out, I realized that it was difficult to trace my house at 32 Van Wyk Street. So PJ accompanied me as I searched. Now, Franschhoek gleams during the day, with grand houses arranged better than Hollywood facades. But at night this fine layer lifts off. Shadows gather and roads lose their geometrical sensibility. I felt I was in a different place than I was during the day but I kept on, eager to see the sign for 32 Van Wyk. We missed a turn unfortunately, and we kept walking, up to a point where there were no more street lights, where the road vanished inside a cluster of tall trees.

As we turned to walk back, we noticed that we were being trailed by three masked young men, who immediately hid behind trees when they saw us. In that most unholy moment, as I tried to register the danger, PJ leant towards me and whispered, “Be prepared to fight.” As I gathered my breath to speak, I saw PJ unhook his belt, ready to flick it out as a weapon. “After hitting them, we will need to run for our lives Kiprop,” he said. Instinct spoke to me then, and advised me to be bold. I knew I would not fight. I have never been in a street fight of any kind. Still I raised my shoulders high, wrapped my coat tight and began walking up with what I assumed was a mean Nairobi swagger, hoping against hope that they would be deceived. As we came close to them, PJ narrowed his brows in a manner to suggest “Kujeni vile mnakuja, hata sisi ni wanaume.”

The three masked men emerged from their hiding, and walked by us in an Indian file. They maintained their hooded gazes till they vanished in the murk ahead. Now I really wanted to run but I kept on with my confident swagger, and sighed in relief when we finally saw 32 Van Wyk. We walked to my house, unlocked the door and sat on the wicket chairs inside. I felt as if I was being pricked by a thousand needles and it took me a while to realize that PJ was talking to me. His face was the same truthful face I had seen all along when he said, “I would have fought beside you to the end. You know I find it sad that other Africans see us black South Africans as being violent to them. When I was in Nigeria I was shown so much kindness. I insist on being kind as I can to any other African, to show them that a South African can see them as brothers too. I am tired of this xenophobia.”

He then scratched his locks for a while, before adding

“We once had a king called Moshoeshoe. When people ran from wars and famine, and wanted refuge in our Sotho kingdom, his only question would be ‘Are they brown?’ You are a Sotho too Kiprop. You are brown, just like me.

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Kimoi

In 1919, a man named Arap Moi (nothing associated with the former president) walked from Mutei to Karonai, to visit his son Chesire, who worked as a horse trainer for Mr. Right, a colonial settler. At that time, girls were about to be released from seclusion and he was immediately fascinated by a girl, who led the group in singing and who had the loveliest beaded leather skirt. Arap Moi searched for the girl’s father Kipkigey, and gave him a pouch of tobacco, telling him that this girl had to be wedded to his son. Arap Moi walked back to Mutei, and got seriously sick. Before dying, he told his family that he had reserved a daughter for his son Chesire.

After his funeral, people were sent to Karonai to search for this daughter. They found the mother Kabon who was immediately distressed that her daughter had to move to Mutei, which she felt was too dry and had insufficient pasture. Besides, her daughter was the eldest child and it pained that they had to be soon separated. Kipkigey agreed with the proposed marriage though, and the wedding happened. The daughter, Kimoi, moved to Mutei, where she promptly got pregnant but suffered a miscarriage. She subsequently got pregnant three times again, but lost all these babies during childbirth.

Kipkigey was furious, saying Chesire’s family was cursed, and demanded his daughter back. Kimoi and Chesire consulted an orkoiyot to end their despair and were told to walk till they had crossed four rivers, then find a place to settle. That place was Sergoit where Kimoi’s daughter Chesiny was born in 1926. Kimoi, following the instruction of the orkoiyot placed Chesiny inside an empty hyena’s den and asked the hyenas to talk to death and have it spare her daughter.

Chesiny is still here today, and is my eldest aunt. Kimoi, on the other hand, passed on just three years after I was born. My memory of her is hazy. I just see an old woman on a stool, who was wrapped in a yellow leso and had black rubber shoes that stepped softly on the grass.

Mum tells me that Kimoi was so happy when I was born, and came to hospital with millet. She sprinkled the millet and on my forehead then squeezed my cheeks saying, “You are the heart of my youngest daughter. You are the reason I have lived this long.”

Malaika

I always thought of angels. I wondered what it felt like to be one, to illuminate from within with divine light as you walked on panels of cloud and sunshine. I imagined their staffs blazing brighter than Star Wars’ sabers. I wondered about being lifted from my human existence into a celestial, angelic experience, which was free from capitalism, nationality and race, which allowed me to move as I pleased. I asked for this. I prayed my rosary. I sat still under the shade of our lemon trees, believing the transformation would happen at any moment.

The Cherubim were my favorite, those who guarded the Tree of Life with flaming swords that turned every way. I was frightened of Jophiel, with his golden wings that were as sharp as knives, how he held his arms high to cast Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden. In the images, his face was always white and deadpan, as he looked down upon the two human beings curled in shame, unmoved by Eve as she pulled a garment over her breasts. I would think of Gabriel, visiting Zechariah and Mary. He seemed a solid and precise-this Gabriel. Eager to pass his message and leave. Always dressed in linen with a halo on his head.

I would also think of the fallen ones-Ramiel, Batriel, Kokabiel-who were cast out of heaven after desiring the daughters of man. I thought of their children, the Nephilim, who grew up to be men of great renown. I thought about these women, who were desired and loved by angels.

I digress:

In 2012, I was alone in the house at night while it was raining. Then I heard giggles outside. I asked if they were angels and they went quiet. I asked if they were kind and they said yes. So I opened the door. The sky was like I had never seen it to be before, a maelstrom of shadow and rain that turned the air cold. I walked back to my table to finish my tea and felt the presence of two beings walk in. I tried to talk to them-“Where are you from? What do you want? Where are you going?” But they were mum. So we all sat still in the dark, as I drank my tea. Later, I told them that I was tired and going to sleep. Since they were kind, I told them they could sleep over or be on their way.

I woke up to find them gone.

Bar Tore-The Killer of Leopards

Imagine 1924, in the settler farms of Uasin Gishu. Arap Amdany is 22 years old and has been employed by a Scottish farmer named Charles, as a baker. He is assigned an outdoor oven, made from mud, from which bakes bread and scones daily for Charles and his brood. But he is never allowed to eat any. Then, think of one Saturday, when the sky is clear and the sun intensely hot. Charles and his family are away, attending a fair, but are to come back later for dinner. Arap Amdany, feeling pleasant and happy with himself, takes such tender care as he mixes the flour, sugar, eggs and whatever else he has been taught to use. The heat from the firewood is just right that day, and the scones come out golden, crispy and very tempting. Arap Amdany tells himself he is only going to eat one, but naturally, finishes everything.

Charles comes back and finds no scones. Arap Amdany tells him that the oven was hot and everything got burnt. Still, Charles swells with rage and shouts back at him in the harsh, abrasive language called English which Arap Amdany would never care to know. But even despite his inability to understand, something about how Charles looks at him, something about how sweat trickles down to collect on his nose, something about his voice, sets Arap Amdany off. Before he knows it, he swings his bare foot and smacks Charles on the face with such force that the latter crumbles on the ground. As Charles’s wife begins to scream, Arap Amdany flees the scene.

As he runs, Charles’s dog-a kind of terrier, follows him. The dog has become attached to him ever since he began baking and insists on being by his side. But Arap Amdany is terrified. Behind him, he can hear settler farmers pursuing him on horses, with that kindit, kindit sound galloping horses make, getting closer and closer. He scans the plateau and finds an ant-bear hole to dive in. The terrier also snuggles in and nestles quietly beside him. Arap Amdany holds his breath as the horses pass over him and waits for the kindit, kindit sound to fade before he emerges. He keeps running with the dog, all the way to Oldoldol, on the edge of Kerio Valley.

There, Arap Amdany realizes the necessity of getting rid of the dog. As the dog laps water, he fetches a heavy log of wood and smashes its head. He takes the collar off its writhing body, ties it around his knee, and goes down the valley to his village in Kipsabwei. At home, he displays the collar and sings a naughty song he composed, about how he kicked Charles and killed his dog, to the cheer of his peers.

Two weeks later, colonial police forces come down to Kipsabwei and ask the chief to reveal the suspect. But the Chief is Arap Amdany’s uncle and lies, claiming that Arap Amdany never came to the village, but went to join his mother’s relatives in Aldai, which is on the other side of Uasin Gishu. Thus Arap Amdany is never caught. A year later, he accessorizes the dog collar with the skin coat of a leopard he kills. Applauding his bravery, the people of Kipsabwei change his name to Bar Tore, The Killer of Leopards.

It was a name he insisted in his old age, when he had moved from Kipsabwei to become our neighbor in Iten. I used to love going to his place, especially since he would let me pluck fruit from the loquat trees that grew in his compound. I cared less about his stories then. Luckily, someone listened keenly and reminded me of this tale.

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.