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.

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.