BOTH SIDES

“You think you can steal from me, you good for nothing thief? You told me to get in with 30 bob fare, not 40!”

“Madam, please don’t bring your issues to this matatu, just pay the money. Everyone else has paid 40, do you think you are more special than them?”

“These are not issues of mine, this is an injustice from you! You lied to me! I gave you a 50 shilling note-I want my 20 shillings change or nothing. The rest have not spoken up because they are meek- but they feel just as I do. And I know you’ll just take that money and go waste it on alcohol. Yes, steal that extra change and go become a useless drunkard! You deserve it!”

Mathee, you won’t disrespect me at my own workplace. I’m sorry that 10 shillings means so much to you, but that is simply how it is. If you don’t like it, get off and grab a bicycle. Don’t stress me.”

“How dare you talk to me like that, you little boy? What kind of shame are you bringing the mother who raised you? Stealing and then acting self-righteous??”

We mathee-“

Foolish man-“

Shuka saa hii basi! Si ush-“

“Sishuki bila my change!”

I smiled to myself and buried my head deeper in the novel, ‘Sleeping with Schubert’, that I was reading, though my full concentration had now shifted to the spectacle in the vehicle. The matatu conductor, now positively shaking with fury, pointed at me as one of the ‘compliant’ customers who were content with their 10 shilling change, and barked at the lady to get out of the matatu lest he throw her out. I raised my hand in a feeble attempt at an apology at the lady, who was now glowering at me, as if I had somehow colluded with the conductor to do this to her. The rest of the passengers, in the meanwhile, exchanged knowing looks and chuckled quietly. It seemed this would be the biggest form of entertainment for the day for many of us. As we got to the stage, I promptly got off the vehicle, though part of me wanted to stay to see how the argument would pan out.

AsI walked back home, I overheard a loud conversation between a boy and a girl, in their preteen years, who were both wearing the same school uniform, the girl perched on a bicycle and the boy leaning on the gate of one of the houses (presumably they were siblings). The girl was chuckling uncontrollably as she let out words in gasps; “You…like…Anne…everyone…now….knows.” The boy, meanwhile, waved his hands and shook his head furiously as he shouted back in an irritated, high pitched voice, “No, I don’t! Marvin made that up! Now people are going to laugh at me!”

“You did call him fat, you know. It’s partly your fault.”

“Well, he is! I didn’t know it would hurt his girly feelings! He’s such a girl.”

The girl continued to laugh and sped off on her bicycle, shouting, “Harry likes Anne! Harry likes Anne!”, and Harry chased after her, shaking his fist in protest. I chuckled with nostalgia as I remembered my own early experiences of tween romance, and how harrowing it was to have a boy like you, to like a boy, or to have someone accuse you of liking someone.

As I reached the gate, my mind strayed back to the heated exchange in the matatu. The initial assumption would be to blame the woman for being so petty; but I wondered whether maybe that 10 shillings really did mean a lot to her. Perhaps it was the difference between a full meal and just ugali in the evening. Perhaps it was her fare to get home. Perhaps the rest of us had indeed just let it slide for fear of sparking an argument. The matatu conductor, too, was not the absolute victim- he did state that the fare was 30Ksh at the stage, so he went back on his word. But I knew too that he was only doing his job, and perhaps had hastily recalculated the price on seeing the traffic snarl-up on the road, to prevent his boss from getting on his case about low returns at the end of the day. There were 2 sides to every story- even Harry, the boy who supposedly liked Anne, was not an absolute victim-neither was chubby Marvin, the said accuser.

A cold breeze swept past me, and I shivered- a glance at my watch told me it was almost 7:30 pm. My heart sank with dread- my mother would use my lateness as an excuse to point out every single mistake I had made for the last 5 years, and then would proceed to pick a fight for the rest of the evening. But then I remembered, that this only one side of the story- my own. Of course she was only worried about my safety, and that is why she got angry. And her point of view was completely understandable-the methods, questionable- but understandable.

I suppose the problem with life is that we are almost pre-conditioned to not see past our own noses. We make assumptions about things, without considering both sides- I myself am a victim of this. Which is why my New Year’s resolution is to know both sides of the story, for as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie said, there is great danger in knowing , or telling, the single story.

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GROWING MY ROOTS

The crowd stared at me impatiently; I had taken far too long to think. With a deep breath, I began in Swahili, “Gogo was one of
the kindest people I have ever met.”
Whispers broke out in the crowd, the elders staring at me in disbelief, and the youth barely hiding their amusement.
Nevertheless, I stuttered throughout the rest of my dedication and rushed back to my seat, scattered claps following in my
wake. I was furious with the crowd for laughing at me, and with myself for giving them a good reason to. The rest of the
ceremony went in a blur. At tea time, I dragged myself to the smoky kitchen, trying to ignore the loud whispers and sniggers
that followed me. Aunt Chelimo stood up to stretch herself just as I got in, and when she caught my eye, she said, tongue-in-
cheek, “Ehe, the city girl who cannot speak Kalenjin, even at her grandmother’s memorial!”
In the uncomfortable silence that ensued, Mum sieved the tea, quietly handing the thermos flask over to me to take to the
Elders’ tent. My great uncle, Kipchirchir, looked at me suspiciously as I approached and talked to me in Kalenjin. I replied
apologetically that I couldn’t understand. With a morose shake of his head, he turned back to the elders, and said in Swahili, “A
tree with no roots.”
A tree with no roots. I left that ceremony feeling worse than I had ever felt in my life. On our painfully silent journey back home
that evening, my mind wandered back to the older days; Kalenjin was initially the secret code, spoken by my parents when they
wanted to have a confidential conversation, while the languages of instruction to us were English and Swahili. I was 11 when
Mum attempted to teach me Kalenjin, but my preteen self so stubbornly refused to cooperate that she gave up on me. My
flawed reasoning was that we were ‘urban’, and therefore had Swahili for ‘authenticity’. During various family gatherings and
trips to Sangurur, our home village, I always felt a distinct desire to understand the peculiar pronunciations and intonations of
Kalenjin, but I pushed it to my subconscious. However, that memorial day, it refused to stay there.
As I stayed awake in my bed that night, feeling guilty for desecrating my grandmother’s memory with my ignorance, and being
a stranger to my own tribal tongue, I remembered that merely having guilty feelings would not right my wrongs. It was time to
change. I needed to learn Kalenjin.
From that month onwards, I tried different methods of learning, from listening to Kalenjin radio stations and putting traditional
music on my playlist (this amused my friends), to instructing my parents to speak in Kalenjin only, with necessary translations. I
even started reading the Bible in Kalenjin, and keeping a diary of the new words I learnt daily. Performing as a soloist in a
traditional Kalenjin song during my final music assessment in High School imparted in me knowledge of our colorful traditional
garb, dance and vocal ornamentation. It has not been easy; many times I feel ashamed in holding a conversation with my fluent
cousins, uncles and aunts in the broken Kalenjin I have learnt. Nevertheless, I try, and I have noticed that things I used to see
with indifference, such as mursik, our traditional drink, and Kalenjin proverbs, poems and sayings, are becoming meaningful to
me.
That night after the memorial, I resolved to learn Kalenjin in a bid to prove myself; to show that I was worthy of my second
name. But since then, I have realized that learning my native language is not a competition, it is a journey of self-awareness
and appreciation of traditions that have been in my family for generations.
I may never pass the litmus test of Kalenjin fluency, but this tree won’t stop growing its roots.

WHY ARE YOU HERE?

A neon installation by the artist Jeppe Hein in UChicago’s Charles M. Harper Center asks this question for us: “Why are you here and not somewhere else?”

I am seated here, in our farm at Sergoit Road in Uasin Gishu County, soaking in the sun, in silence, because though I denied it vehemently at first, I do need a break from the crazy bustle of Nairobi City and to slide into the tranquility of the countryside. I spent Christmas isolated from the buzz of holiday cheer, movies and indulgent family lunches, herding our cows and going on long treks to our neighbors’ far-stretched homes in the rolling hills on this plain, because I needed to appreciate the beauty of simplicity. In an alternative universe, I would have been lazing around in Nairobi, meeting up with friends, and attending Christmas carol concerts-all of which are not inherently bad tasks. But if I did, I’d have never known that catching sheep is harder than it seems, that effort is required to keep a hearty conversation with no distraction from devices, that Suzza, our highest-yielding cow, is a fierce kicker when provoked, and that the sunrise is so beautiful over the farm’s horizon.

The age old question of fate kicks in; are our lives predetermined by some golden thread, whose tension depends on factors past our control? Some people work hard, and never see the reward of it-some work minimally, and are continually benefited. Working at the bank, it became obvious that life is grey- the nicest people are not always the most financially successful, nor are the rudest ones the poorest. If it’s possible that one may have their dreams painted out, and strive incessantly to achieve them, then fail at the last minute or succumb to a stroke of bad luck. And if comfort cannot be found in religion, in the belief of a supernatural, eternal relief, then we begin to question the needfulness of life. Why are we here, and not in the grave, if regardless of our effort, we are destined to fail?  The answer is simple- because we are not only a product of our needs.

We are here because we have a responsibility to ensure that neither us, nor those surrounding us, regret being here. We are here because sometimes our minds play tricks on us by convincing us that we are not worthy of true consideration; and that the key to living life is to be able to overcome those thoughts.

As Katie Perry once asked, do you ever feel like you’re a waste of space? I know I do. I have grappled with extremem feelings of worthlessness more than I care to admit.And once that one brooding thought enters your mind, and you allow it to take center-stage, you subconsciously let the rest in. I ceased to see the beauty of life, and pessimism pervaded my everyday activities. Seeing a beggar on the street, instead of wondering how I should help him, I was scared that I might one day end up in the same position. I became insanely envious of my successful friends, instead of being happy for their achievements. When I looked to my future, all I could see was disappointment and failure-and at one point I did not see life as worth living anymore. And that was when I hit my rock-bottom.

Looking back now, I am ashamed and disgusted by that behavior. But that’s the thing with life-it’s so much easier to be negative than to be positive. It actually takes effort to wake up each morning and be excited for what is to come. I used to believe that happy people were simply that way, that it was a character trait and I could only blissfully long for the day when I would also wake up with a light heart. But then I realized that life doesn’t quite work that way-I had to will myself into living my life the way it should be lived. I realized that there is much more joy in giving back to the community than spending money on myself trying to feel better. I realized that in life there will always be someone better than me, so I should suck up my pride and understand that even if I’m not the best, what matters is that I’ve done my level best. I realized that I have no right to a sure, prosperous future, because I am subject to the rules of time, just like everyone else, so I should stop worrying about it so much. I realized that the difference between what you think and feel you need (my Christmas experience) and what you actually do need can be very stark.

So why are we here? There are 2 primary answers to the question: in religion, it is so that we secure a better after-life, in purely scientific terms, it is so that we reproduce, thus perpetuating the human race. Regardless of where your beliefs lie in the theism-atheism spectrum, please always remember, no matter how horrible you feel, that you are here to live your life, and to live it well; and to make sure that on your deathbed, your regrets are manageable. So if you haven’t started living your life, I urge you to begin as soon as possible. I began it only a few months ago. And I don’t plan on stopping for the next 51 years or so.

That’s why I’m here. Why are you here?