Privilege in the time of Cholera

The cholera incidents that flooded the news last week took me on a memory trip to Lamu. I remember the first time, I landed on the famous East African archipelago, Manda island and set foot on the exotic and magical Lamu. The plane touched down on Manda airstrip, a bare bones affair, across from Lamu town. I boarded a boat shuttle for the 15 minute ride across the channel. From a distance the seafront stone dwellings had the dim reflection of the typical urban sprawl that is a common feature in low-income neighborhoods in most Kenyan towns. One of the passengers off the same flight, a young lady from America was blown away by the Lamu Stone town Swahili architecture, the fort like walls and large wooden doors carved with intricate designs. “It is like from another time, Aladdin” which in hindsight was not compliment.

Of Donkeys And Citizens Who Need Diapers

Other than its historical buildings that have somehow defied the passage of time, Lamu town is also known for ( before the Al Shabaab maneno ) for its virtually absence of vehicles. To get around the old historic town twisty narrow alley ways, residents and tourists either walk or hitch a ride on a donkey.

In the year 1985, Lamu town officials decided to make a controversial move. The donkey traffic in Lamu was fairly high and a hygiene crisis erupted. An outbreak of cholera that year, was squarely blamed on the donkeys, producing excessive amount of manure that littered the streets and contaminated the water supply. The town sanitation officials suggested a plan to dress the donkeys in diapers because residents were not too keen on scooping up after their donkeys. The donkey diaper proposal did not sit well with the townsfolk who thought it was ludicrous despite the noble plan to keep ‘Lamu safi”. A government official is on record appealing to the town’s gifted craftsmen to invent baskets, leather buckets or cloth diapers to collect donkey droppings as they trotted along. However, approval from senior government officials in the mainland was slow in coming and the Lamu’s donkey-undies idea was ditched.

I found myself chuckling at this thought as I stumbled upon photo activist, Boniface Mwangi’s thought provoking photo exhibition, aptly titled ‘Diaper Mentality’ during a recently concluded Story Moja book fair. The photographs dishes out a jarring dose of reality. Boniface Mwangi is a man who knows how to put a point across and he uses powerful imagery to go where few social activists would dare tread. The Diaper Mentality is a no holds barred exhibition. There are no scared cows in Boni’s lens. The president Uhuru Kenyatta made a rather undistinguished appearance, caricatured as a nyama choma attendant, roasting and wrapping meat in a smoky tavern, dressed in a diaper in a satirical reference to his past but not forgotten infamous off-the-cuff remark, “newspapers are only good for wrapping meat”. But besides, the roll call of usual suspects, government and its cronies, (Think Sonko, Pattni) infamous for their public shenanigans, Diaper mentality’s main focus is the ordinary mwananchi behaving badly.

The photographer traverses the length and breadth of the country calling out bad behavior everywhere. Corrupt traffic cops, petty muggers, jaywalkers, passengers scrambling for matatu seats, sex-for-fish mongers, Northern frontier cattle rustlers, boda boda organ donors, open air urinals, just to get started. Everywhere it exists, ‘ ushenzi’ is called out.

Diaper mentality is evidently become an accepted culture of individualism in Kenya. While we all accept that government never misses an opportunity to display incompetence, civilians are not exactly blameless. A good portion of the ulcer-inducing traffic jams in Nairobi can be traced to a single obtuse driver refusing to give way. The habit of traffic obstruction is so commonplace, one suffers abuse from other drivers for road courtesy. Without traffic police supervision, drivers will be content to glare at each other, gridlocked at an intersection, each protesting their right of way.

I have had the misfortune of witnessing fellows nearly bursting a hernia because someone occupied the designated parking spot in a residential estate, seemingly blind to free parking slots available. Something happens to Nairobi drivers behind the wheel. Probably the same virus that infects otherwise sensible men and women once they get elected to office.

Which is why, whenever I spot bad personal behavior in public places, I think of Lamu donkeys and mutter under my breath, “Stop being an ass and be a responsible citizen or we will dress you in a diaper”.



It May Be A Good Idea To Learn Some Chinese

The West is in a terrible mess and the royal baby is about the only good news I have heard from the Northern hemisphere in a long while. When the birth of a blue blood baby becomes a global media obsession, it is time to review the national aspiration script. As for the American dream, the nagging race issues even with a black man at helm are signs that Kenyans really need to wake up and look east for options.

The Chinese are taking over one road at time. The signs are pasted all over if you care to look. You must have come across stories in the local dailies of Chinese road construction workers charming wives with romantic sessions in culverts, language barrier notwithstanding. We generally do not associate the Chinese with romance but clearly the hidden dragon is not to be underestimated.

Chinese hawkers occasionally emerge on our streets, prostitutes in our police cells. Chinese traders are more visible and out in the parks and beaches, the Chinese Yuan is valued currency. Chinese brands of electronics and goods pack our houses even as we whine about the cheap quality. The Chinese brought us technology we can afford. I own a Huawei phone which not something to brag about as say if I had a Samsung or an Apple gadget but it works even though I still can’t figure out the correct pronunciation of the brand.  I am typing this article on a Lenovo laptop, the world’s second largest PC vendor. My mate rides a Chinese motorbike, a brand that I can’t pronounce, that looks and thumps like 650cc Yamaha Tenere even though it packs a mere 150 cc. Not to mention the cup of china that sits on my writing desk.

As far as cultural invasions go, I think the Chinese will be more benign. History is kind on them and shows them more interested in our women than our land. Kenyan Archaeologists have evidence of Chinese presence on the Kenyan coast from the 15th century. They came, they mingled and they left. In the Lamu archipelago, there are tales of shipwrecked Chinese sailors who won local favour after they killed a dangerous python. They married the women, converted to Islam and six generations later their DNA was traced in one Mwamaka Sharifu, a girl from Lamu who claimed Chinese ancestry.

In 50 years I have witnessed Kenya go through waves.  My parents were wannabe Anglophones who thought eating buttered toast was a sign of achievement. My generation inevitably became Americanized and our love for pizzas and burgers is registered on our waistlines.  It only seems logical to prepare my kids for the new Chinese tune. I am doing my part by watching more CCTV trying to figure out who are the 20 hottest Chinese actresses, just to give my nephew a fighting chance in the future dating game.

I am over my denial. I have become Chinanized ( new word alert). At least I use chop sticks competently. Aspirational parents would be advised to drop the French and Spanish lessons and get their kids to learn Mandarin and some Catonese.  There are more than a billion speakers beyond any other language and when a better future is part of the parental script, the benefits will be written in Chinese characters.

As Confucius says, denial like a bubble… one prick… all gone.